Sparking empowerment

November 11, 2015 by Allison Holle and Kara Sperry

Bring yourself back to elementary school. At an age free of problem sets and essays, you define your days by the magical, almost prophetic moment when the teacher rises from her chair and makes the announcement: It’s recess! You and your friends leap away from your desks in fits of enthusiasm, already planning your game of capture the flag or red rover. Nothing stands between you and the glorious freedom of the playground.

Williams alumnae Anouk Dey ’09 and Katherine Fischer ’08 drew upon their childhood memories of playing all kinds of games and sports when they applied for the Davis Peace Project grant in 2008. Their aim was to share the joys and empowering benefits of athletics with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees living in Jordan through summer camps.

By 2011, the duo’s summer camp had grown into a full-fledged non-governmental organization, christened Reclaim Childhood (Reclaim), capable of accommodating the Syrian refugees that flooded to Jordan at the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. Reclaim already had roots in Zarqa, a town north of Amman home to Iraqi refugees, before Syrian refugees also settled there. Nowadays, Reclaim serves both refugee populations at the same camp every summer. Reclaim also holds camps within Amman in the neighborhoods of Hashmi Shamali and Marka Jenobia, as multitudes of Syrians have found refuge in the capital.

On a superficial level, the summer camps and semester-long weekend sports leagues that Reclaim organizes are reminiscent of our own athletic experiences as children. The warm-up laps, circle stretches, team cheers and passing drills feel nearly identical as a young camper in Baltimore, Md., and as a volunteer in Amman.

The current social and political conditions for refugees living in Jordan, however, mandate that Reclaim Childhood’s work is infinitely more important than that of the summer camps we grew up attending. The entire Jordanian infrastructure is under immense strain from hosting nearly 700,000 Syrian refugees. To make that statistic more accessible: one in every 13 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee.

Reclaim has immediate, quantifiable benefits for both Syrian girls and women living in the Amman area. All of the coaches for the summer camps are Syrian refugee women. Their coaching salary gives them significant status within their families because legal employment is very difficult for Syrian refugees to attain. (Syrians can enter the workforce legally only if their Jordanian employer applies for a work permit on the Syrians’ behalf. The majority of Syrians work without permits and for lower wages, which has prompted a tense competition for jobs between Syrians and Jordanians.)

The girls connect deeply with the coaches over their shared homeland and language. Occasionally, girls will complain about running an extra lap, but their coaches’ support is deeply meaningful because the girls admire their role models’ resilience. High school students from King’s Academy and the American Community School, among the most prestigious in the nation, volunteer during weekends and also become role models for the girls. The friendships forged between the Jordanian and Syrian adolescents challenge xenophobia and inspire the Syrian girls to work to obtain the best education possible.

Reclaim’s community organizers, who reach out to families with girls who might be interested in the sports camps and clinics, work intimately within the communities to foster social ties and nourish an exercise culture. These connections are vital for newly arrived refugees: Just knowing that Reclaim will provide the girls with a nutritious lunch can alleviate some economic strain on families.

Yet Reclaim’s most important contribution is the one that is hardest to measure: fostering the emotional and personal growth of each girl through her adolescence. Martha Myers, the Save the Children Country Director in Turkey, spoke on Oct. 15 at the College about her long-term concerns for displaced Syrian children. The consequences of war trauma and the loss of hope were at the top of the list.

It is not easy to say how much of an impact a soccer ball can have in definite, quantifiable terms. But the confidence and ambition that the girls acquire from playing sports in safe, communal spaces is undeniably powerful. Now, more than ever, the strides made by Reclaim’s commitment to female empowerment bear extreme importance for the young girls displaced by political upheaval.

Allison Holle ’17 is an Arabic studies major from Baltimore, Md. She lives in Agard. Kara Sperry ’16 is an art history and English double major from Darien, Conn. She lives on Spring St.

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