Taking the game to a kids’ camp like no other
Chelsea ambassador Katie Chapman is just back from coaching children at a refugee base in Jordan
Former Chelsea captain Katie Chapman recalls the moment, in the Azraq refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border in the desert outside Amman, when a boy showed her the orange tree he had made from paper. “He wanted to remember that where he’d lived in Syria, there was an orange tree,” she says. “He used to pick the oranges and they were delicious. They invented this tree and all the oranges hanging from it. There were stories to every piece of artwork.”
As a player, Chapman won most of the prizes it is possible to win in a glittering 22-year career. She was also, for most of that time, the only elite female footballer in Britain with children, and was a vocal champion of mothers’ rights in top-level sport.
Now 36, she is a club ambassador for Chelsea, and has just returned from three days in Jordan which, for more than 35,000 Syrians, has been home since the conflict, which began in 2011, forced them to flee. The orange tree hangs in the arts and crafts hut of Village Five, a closed camp for 9,000 refugees who escaped Isis stronghold areas. The skyline is dominated by high fences and inhabitants cannot leave “for security reasons”, says Chapman. Village Five has only recently received electricity.
Nonetheless, there is what Chapman calls “a little community”: there is a marketplace and some semblance of an economy in which refugees can earn money by working for Plan International, Chelsea’s global charity partner, in the camps.
Makeshift schools teach music and life skills, and a 3G football pitch, built by a charity, hosts camp football tournaments. Chapman was there to run coaching sessions. “Even adults were joining in and the female adults when we did the girl groups. They’re such strong women,” she says. Next year, Chapman will run the London Marathon for Plan International.
Chapman sighs as she remembers seeing the fences poke into view as the car carrying her, and other volunteers from Chelsea drove into the camp. “It was in the middle of nowhere. It was like desert. There was nothing for miles. I didn’t actually think about the impact it would have on me emotionally, of going over there and seeing how they live. I wasn’t really prepared for that. As much as they’re safe, it’s still not great living circumstances.
“That’s where they’re living for the foreseeable. Speaking to the refugees, a lot of them would like to go home, back to Syria. But in terms of rebuilding their own country, I don’t know what that looks like. Some have family members still in Syria, or in different camps. It’s hard managing missing family while getting some normality back in your life.”
In the neighbouring Village Six, Chapman met a mother of six who recounted her family’s journey across the border to Jordan. “We were sitting with their little 10-year-old, his mum telling the story. You could see him reliving it. You could see it in his eyes and the sadness in his face.
“I don’t think you realise how tough it is. The poor families are only running for safety, running from the chaos in their own country. They just want to look after their family. Listening to their mum telling how she tried to protect them, how hard it was to come across the border, just to be safe … every step of the way, by the sound of it, was a risk.
“This family had been there five years, so they’d found their feet a little bit, but who’d want to hear that story over and over again? Bombs, shooting? Any child that sees that is going to be really, really traumatised.”
The family had tried to make the shelter homely: personal notes and
‘People sometimes have a perception or opinion of refugees, but they’re just looking for help’
artwork adorned the walls, and they had constructed beds and a kitchen.
While many fled, a generation of children have been born into the camps and know nothing else. Chapman held a 15-day-old baby. “Half the population are children, and some have no parents.” Chapman’s voice cracks slightly. “For me – wow. If I could have taken them all home, I probably would have done. People sometimes have a perception or opinion of refugees, but they’re just looking for help.” When Chapman returned to England, she sat down with her own sons, Harvey, 15, Riley, 10, and Zachary, five. “I held them tight, because I’d missed them terribly. I showed them pictures I’d taken and we spoke about things over there.
“I think I would like my kids to see it. Over here, children have so much, and they tend to be ungrateful for it – because it is just there to have.”
Her words begin to run away with her as she remembers the Syrian families’ generosity. “They had very little, but the things they had, they were willing to offer you. They’ve got access to water – I believe they’re allowed so much water per shelter. The children gave me a teddy bear they had made. Their imagination was unbelievable.
“To see children over there, running around, playing with stones in the dust, the sand … a little six-year-old made a catapult out of metal with a piece of elastic and material. He was just catapulting stones across the floor. They’re so happy, and so generous. Really lovely people, lovely families.”
Child’s play: Katie Chapman thrills some young girls by playing football on her visit to a camp near the Jordan-Syria border