Football fosters forgiveness in the Middle East

ConflictPeacebuildingEducation

Would a football tournament organised by refugees and local youths in a high-tension zone in Lebanon achieve its goals of acceptance and forgiveness?

Net result: Football crosses cultural and religious boundaries and immediately provides some common ground. Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash
Net result: Football crosses cultural and religious boundaries and immediately provides some common ground. Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

When more than 60 Lebanese and Syrian youths crossed the play area of a school in Beirut to start a game of football, there was some concern that it could all go horribly wrong.

‘To be honest, we had our concerns that it might end in conflict and we would have achieved nothing, or even made the situation worse,’ said Ramy Darwich Taleb, who works with the Foundation for Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Lebanon (FFRL) to help young people in the area realise that diversity does not have to mean divided.

Lebanon is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East, and is home to its second-largest population of Christians after Egypt. It has become a place of refuge for both Palestinian and Syrian people seeking to escape conflict. While Lebanon and Syria are not at war, hostilities have emerged between Syrians fleeing war in their country and their Lebanese host communities.

It was the teenagers’ idea to address these tensions through the channel of football. They wanted to put into practice what they had been taught on the Forgiveness Journey programme, which they had just completed. A football tournament would be a bridge-building event, they decided. And when match day came around, five teams of twelve players lined up against each other.

Given the context, football was a natural choice. ‘The decision to host a football tournament was an easy one to make,’ said Ramy. ‘Football is universal. It crosses cultural and religious boundaries and immediately provides some common ground.

‘We wanted to empower the youth to be peace ambassadors by letting them lead the event’

‘It also creates a platform to deal with conflict in a healthy, restorative way – and one that is hopefully fun at the same time. We felt it could be effective when used alongside the constructive mechanisms for dealing with anger and hurt that our participants had already learnt about.

‘We wanted to empower the youth to be peace ambassadors by letting them take the initiative in leading the event. Ultimately, our aim was to build relationships between communities, to provide a safe space to do this and to overcome dehumanising and stereotypical perceptions.’

Group dynamic: FFRL brings together young people from different denominations and backgrounds into a forgiveness class. Photo: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund
Group dynamic: FFRL brings together young people from different denominations and backgrounds into a forgiveness class. Photo: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund

Did the tournament achieve these goals?

‘The competitive nature of football meant that we did have some challenges in ensuring participants remained good spirited, and didn’t act aggressively towards each other,’ said Ramy.

‘But in the end it was a breakthrough event. The host school and another local NGO became involved and the players’ general acceptance and encouragement of each other in both communities was amazing.’

Ramy and the team at FFRL hope the peacebuilding efforts of the young people will be noticed by their families and communities and have a knock-on effect. And when they run the next football tournament, they will aim to include more people and consider making the day longer, as the youth wanted to stay and continue playing.

The final score, for the record, was 6–5 to the Lebanese. ‘But everyone was a winner,’ said Ramy. ‘All in all, it was a very exciting and challenging day.’

Our Footsteps 68 magazine contains more stories on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Nick Wyke
Nick Wyke is the Tearfund Learn editor. Email: nick.wyke@tearfund.org