How a Soccer Ball Brought Divided Communities Together in Iraq

Life in and around a refugee camp can be tense—and not just for all the obvious reasons.

The refugees are miles from home—in some cases, hundreds of miles. Many speak a different language, come from a different culture, and practice a different religion than those in the surrounding community. There are many boundaries that keep people apart.

Some of these boundaries are literal—and tightly regulated. For security reasons, refugees are not free to simply come and go from camps. Their movement in and out of the camp is  strictly controlled.

Other boundaries are purely social. People in neighboring communities often see refugees as “foreigners” or “outsiders,” and might treat them with suspicion or even hostility. They may see newly arrived refugees as a threat to their jobs, their security, and their way of life.

Whatever the reason, this kind of division destroys social cohesion and makes long-term peace much harder to achieve.

Which is why one group decided to organize a soccer tournament at a Syrian refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This is a camp where you’ve been serving for years, creating jobs for displaced women and men, turning refugees into small business owners. If you’ve bought a hand-knit washcloth or ornament from our shop, chances are it was made in this refugee  camp.

According to the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI), who organized the tournament, “The idea… grew out of efforts to promote dialogue and mutual understanding among people forced by war to live side by side, despite their having different languages and cultures.”

A promotional flyer for the tournament advocates greater social cohesion through mutual understanding and dialogue among different ethnic groups and cultures. Image by Sports Against Violence/Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative.

By using sports to help people communicate, share experiences, and build relationships, the ICSSI was able to facilitate cross-cultural peacemaking… without words.

Their goal with the tournament was to “create an activity that could be shared by people living inside and outside the camp, as a first step in breaking down the walls, both literal and metaphorical, that separate them.”

The tournament was held in the camp and included eight teams: four teams of refugees who live in the camp, two teams from youth centers in nearest city, one comprised of displaced people from other parts of Iraq who now live in the area, and one made up of residents from another nearby city. Over the course of two days, the teams battled it out.

Spectators look on as teams compete in the Football Tournament for Social Cohesion. Photo by Sports Against Violence / Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative.

The final game ended with a disputed goal—but just when organizers thought a fight might break out, the captain of the losing team approached his opponent and shook his hand, bringing resolution and peace back to the event. It was a beautiful moment of conflict resolution that showed what is possible, even in the midst of tension and disagreement.

When the games were over, there was music, dancing, and food from each community. People mingled and got to know each other. At least one friendship was forged that last night when a man from town invited a refugee family over to his home for a meal.

Since the tournament, players from various teams have been getting together to for pick-up games and to spend time together.

Soccer as peacemaking. It’s that beautiful?!?

It’s just further proof that we don’t have to have the best words or be a trained diplomat to be a peacemaker. Anyone can do it, using nearly anything.

From haircuts and school presentations to painting and now football… with a little bit of creativity, anyone can be a peacemaker.

All we have to do is show up and love anyway.

Peacemaker Fridays are published weekly to share stories of people unmaking violence around the world. Be inspired. Take Action.