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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Katie Why­att

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

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