20 July 2017

It is almost as though the clocks in their home strike “football” – Zeinab Atiya Atiye doesn’t need to ask her daughter if she has training. When football is on the day’s schedule, Rayan wakes up especially early, jumping out of bed to finish her household chores in record time. The softly spoken but determined young girl only became acquainted with the sport at the beginning of February but, ever since, she has been addicted.   


A “Sports Learning Course” introduced her to the beautiful game where she took part in 16 sessions over the duration of one and a half months. Each was divided into two parts, the first dedicated to communication and conflict management skills, the second focused on football3 implementation. The project was carried out by “Noon Center”, a local partner of streetfootballworld’s network member ANERA (American Near and East Refugee Aid), opened by two girls who noticed that many children in the Al Maa’shouk gathering were facing educational issues, and that they spent many hours of the day on the street. They responded by creating after school support and recreational activities.


Rayan Ahmad Atiya lives with her parents and three brothers in Al Maa’shouk, not a refugee camp, but a so-called “gathering” of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, in the town of Tyre, 83 kilometres south of Beirut. Nestled between the El-Buss and El-Shamali refugee camps, it houses around 3,500 people, the majority originally from Acre and Safed.


Worldwide over seven million Palestinians have been displaced. Since the 1948 Al Nakba and exodus which uprooted over 700,000 people, Lebanon has hosted large numbers of Palestinian refugees. Another expulsion in 1967 forced a further 300,000 people to flee their homeland. Figures fluctuate, but a report released by UNRWA in 2014 mentions 450,000 Palestinians residing in Lebanon – most of who live under critical and hazardous conditions on the social, economic and political level. Lebanon itself has suffered war, economic and political stability, making the country ill equipped to host the largest per capita population of refugees in the world.


Most of the country’s arrivals from Palestine live in one of 12 refugee camps spread across Lebanon’s six governorates. Others in ‘residential clusters’ or, like Rayan, in a ‘gathering.’ Many of the refugees have already been here for more than a generation. Rayan was born in Al Maa’shouk, as was her mother.


Growing up in the conservative surroundings of Al Maa’shouk, Rayan had been taught to believe that football was “haram” - it simply wasn’t an activity suitable for girls. She only joined the course in February because it was led by an organization she knew well and she had been involved in their after-school activities.


“On the first day of football I was excited, but also a bit scared,” she admits. But once she stepped onto the pitch and started playing, one by one, all of her fears disappeared. Determination and ambition took their place. Her own place in the mixed team was something she and the other girls had to battle for.


When repeatedly forced by the boys to play in defence, Rayan and the other girls decided that enough was enough. “If you force us to play in this position again, we will defend badly,” the girls said. Finding themselves in a proverbial corner, the boys had no choice but to relent.


Rayan had set her sights on the goal and nothing would stop her from taking her place in front of it. She enjoys being a striker and, different from many of her teammates, is also a keen penalty shooter, but her main aim: to be a goalkeeper. “I wanted to prove to the boys that I can also defend the goal, not just they can do it,” she says defiantly. After all, she adds: “Football has taught me that girls and boys are equal.”


Her mother says proudly that this isn’t the only lesson Rayan has learned. “She has become more confident, expresses herself much more than before,” Zeinab noticed. Since taking up the sport, Rayan’s performance at school has also improved, much to the relief to her parents, as within the Palestinian communities drop-out rates are alarmingly high. At only 14, Rayan’s brother is part of the sad statistic.


Football has given Rayan hope and confidence to believe in a different future. Only a few months ago, she almost allowed community taboos and her father’s reluctance to let her play, block her path. Luckily, her mother can be very persuasive. With some gentle coaxing he gave his consent.


When Rayan’s friends saw her play, they wanted to follow suit and enlisted Rayan and her mother’s help – if she had convinced her husband, perhaps she could also talk to their parents. Thanks to Zeinab’s powers of persuasion, the group of girls attending football has since grown.


The boys on the team have come to accept their female teammates: “Now they even choose girls for their teams,” Rayan says, stating that this very fact is noteworthy. Only when new boys join the group, do gender relations have to be re-negotiated. But with the help of their female trainer, Nazha, and a few football3 rules stipulating that penalties must only be taken by girls, they soon fall into line. 


Rayan looks up to Nazha as an important role model and aims to be like her when she is older. She too wants to organize training sessions, Rayan says, and educate others.


Her other idol is her father, a DJ and a painter. Rayan has inherited his artistic talent and learned from him by imitating his style. When she isn’t on the pitch she is at her desk producing new “masterpieces” and every time her school hosts a fair, Rayan says, she is commissioned to produce some pictures. 


But it is only due to her most recently acquired hobby – football – that Rayan believed she could more seriously pursue her other creative interest: singing. When playing football, she says: “What is most important is to enjoy and not necessarily to win.” It is a different matter when it comes to singing. She dreams of scoring first place in the television talent show “The Voice of Lebanon.”


Perhaps then she will become famous and have the chance to meet her football idols from FC Barcelona, she giggles, momentarily swept away by her daydream. Then, she may also be even to afford a “real” football kit. For now, she must continue to attend training in jeans and her trusted converse trainers. 


Rayan’s dreams don’t end there: Another of her greatest wishes is to join her grandmother in the United States. However, her lack of official papers makes both the country and the realisation of her wish a distant reality.


The young teenager certainly has a ready supply of dreams. Now she finally believes that some of them are within reach and that she can do anything. Apart from, perhaps, riding a bike. Though Rayan may now play football, allowing her to pedal through the streets of Al Maa’shouk is not something her parents are ready to push.


This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 3/2017. Read more here. 


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