Football, not fighting – combining sport and therapy

Football training in Rafah

Football training in Rafah, © OPSI, Kerstin Jasinszak


In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Federal Foreign Office is supporting a joint project that offers a range of sports in connection with psychological care for children and young people.

In order to improve and expand psychosocial services, particularly for traumatized children and young people, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Federal Foreign Office is supporting a joint project run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) schools and specialist non-governmental organizations (Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the Palestinian Counseling Center). As part of the project, a range of sports are offered in connection with psychosocial care, and psychologists and teachers are helped to expand their coaching and supervision possibilities.

Rafah – a city in the Gaza Strip. One of many areas where conflict and violence are part and parcel of daily life for children and young people. Often these youngsters are disturbed and traumatized by what’s going on around them. The violence causes not only physical injuries, but also long-lasting psychological stress. So there’s a great need for distraction, as well as for psychosocial care.

Activities and resonance

The project, which has been up and running since 2010, aims to provide sports and other activities for around 800 boys and girls in four UNRWA schools. Before the children could be offered any sports, the necessary infrastructure had to be built: three sports grounds in Jabalia and Rafah (Gaza Strip) and Jenin (West Bank). And all participants were given the necessary sports equipment. Further, 16 sports teachers (eight women and eight men) were trained as youth football coaches, and now they look after the children. Because particularly while they are playing, the children can escape for a while from their difficult social environment. The children’s football training involves learning about different techniques, as well as about healthy eating. But there are plenty of football tournaments too. Then all of a sudden it’s FC Bayern Munich versus Real Madrid! In addition, the children learn about fairness and about how to resolve arguments and conflicts peacefully and with respect for their opponent. So the project is also to do with conflict prevention.

Girls at sports practice in Jenin
Sports practice in Jenin© OPSI, Kerstin Jasinszak

The extra further-training seminars in psychosocial fields meant not only that stable football teams could be built up in the schools, but also that the children could be offered an easily accessible, wide range of basic recreational activities.

At the same time, the project aims to provide a two-year training course in supervision and coaching for health professionals. The development of specially adapted concepts for psychosocial care is a top priority. A total of 35 people are doing this training, not only people looking after the sports project, but also workers on 34 other projects with roughly 360 participants altogether, 180 from the Gaza Strip and 180 from the West Bank. In this way, the project helps to improve local networking and gives the staff the chance to help each other as best they can against the background of war and destruction, thus helping to ensure that they remain fit to work.


Girls with their sports coaches in Rafah
Girls with their sports coaches in Rafah© OPSI, Kerstin Jasinszak

All the participants confirm that the project provides important support for children and young people. This therapeutic approach has a positive impact on participants’ mental state and helps them improve at the sport. Training coaches and supervisors also forms the basis for a lasting link between psychological help and sport. The Federal Foreign Office is contributing 1,200,000 euros to the project, which is run by the Office for Psychosocial Issues (OPSI) of the International Academy at the Free University of Berlin.

Willi Lemke, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, says of projects like the one run by OPSI: “It is through initiatives and experiences of this kind that children can be given a feeling of joy in life and learn to relax and have fun even under the prevailing conditions…”

The fact that the work of Special Adviser Willy Lemke has received funding from the Federal Foreign Office budget since 2008 shows just how important the German Government believes the combination of conflict prevention and sport to be.

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