Rawan and Samah have much in common. They are about the same age; they live in the same city—Mafraq, in northern Jordan—just a short drive from the Syrian border. They are loving, dedicated mothers to daughters who go to the same school. They share similar responsibilities, joys, and struggles in their daily lives. But one crucial difference sets them a world apart.
Rawan is Jordanian; she has lived in Mafraq her entire life. Samah is Syrian; she and her family relocated in the city after fleeing the devastation of the Syrian war.
Rawan’s daughter Lana, a Jordanian, goes to school in the morning with other Jordanian children, while Samah’s daughter, Hanan, attends classes in the same school during the afternoon with her Syrian peers. For the longest time, their paths didn’t cross. Most schools across Jordan have re-introduced double-shift schedules in response to the increased demand for education. While guaranteeing access for a greater number of students, this does sometimes keep Syrian and Jordanian children separated.
In March 2016 Lana and Hanan met at a three-day football camp organized as part of UN Women’s project Empowering Girls and Building Social Cohesion through Sports and Physical Education. They played soccer in mixed-nationality teams, learned nonviolent communication and developed friendships. At the end of the three days, when the students were asked to design their own activities and groups, Lana and Hannan wanted to be assigned to the same group. The friendship that was born at the football camp continues to grow today.
More than one million Syrian refugees—of which over 630,000 are registered as persons of concern with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—live in Jordan today and their integration into the Jordanian society is fraught with challenges. Mistrust and rumors taint how each group perceives the other, in addition to structural challenges of vulnerability and legal status. Social cohesion is the need of the hour.
With the help of the Ministry of Education, the Asian Football Development Project and the Jordanian Football Association, UN Women trained 25 physical education teachers and football coaches on non-violent communication and negotiation skills that they could draw upon to build positive relationships between students. Three football camps organized between February and March 2016 brought together 400 girls from the governorates of Mafraq, Ramtha and Irbid to improve mutual trust, overcome stereotypes and appreciate differences.
“That understanding is the first step towards a more equitable and cohesive society,” says Giuseppe Belsito, UN Women Representative in Jordan. “UN Women supports initiatives to promote dialogue, understanding and equality between diverse communities—refugees and Jordanians, men and women—using sport, drama and other creative platforms, in addition to interventions that address their urgent needs for emloyment and services.”
As Rawan and Samah accompanied their daughters to their meetings, they started talking and discovered that what they shared was greater than what divided them. Slowly they shed their apprehensions and became friends. “Our city is on the boarder of Syria and closer to Dara’a than Amman…we are one people and living as neighbors since hundreds of years, we cannot allow differences and hate to divide us,” says Rawan.
“I never thought I would play or talk with Syrian girls,” said Maha, a participant of the same project, who had bitter arguments with Syrian girls on the first day of football camp. “The camp gave me an opportunity to get to know them closely and understand we have a lot in common.”
This article originally appeared on UNWomen.org