A boisterous crowd cheered on the Latakia girls’ softball team as they brought home their final base runner to secure themselves as the victors of the 2010 Softball Championship. Teams from UNRWA schools across Syria gathered at al-Faiha stadium on 23 and 24 April to take part in the annual softball championships sponsored by JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency).
Emad Abdul Hafiz, UNRWA’s school sports supervisor, said: “The success of this programme has been astounding. We started with just 200 kids and it has expanded to 1,500. The importance of sports extends beyond the playing fields. Using sports as an incentive has succeeded in getting children back into the classroom and working hard.”
Hafiz continued: “An instrumental part of this process has been JICA’s help in gaining the trust of parents and getting girls involved in sports, a phenomenon which is unfortunately not yet very common in Syria.” Mohammed Amouri, UNRWA chief of education in Syria, agreed: “We should all be proud. These girls are perhaps the only girls playing softball in the Middle East!”
Fatmay, an UNRWA student from Sbeineh camp competing on coach Mahasin’s team, said: “Softball is not just about winning, but having fun too. It’s great to change our routine and try something new. I can’t wait for next year.”
Roger Hearn, director of UNRWA affairs in Syria, welcomed Mr Kaoru Iwasaki, the new chief representative to JICA in Syria: “We take particular pride in our relationship with JICA. Without your help we would not be able to fund some of our most important projects for refugee children.”
Mr Amouri said: “We would like to thank the Syrian Sports Union, GAPAR, and the Syrian government for their technical support for this event. We sincerely appreciate all the support the Syrian people and government have shown for the Palestinian people.”
Mr Ali Mustafa, Director-General of the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR) also thanked JICA for its committed support for UNRWA‘s education programme and for Palestinian refugees in Syria.
Hafiz added: “In the future, we want all students to play and enjoy the benefits of sports. We hope to expand the programme so that girls can also play football too. Or we could even start a summer programme offering swimming lessons to students. These kids are up for any challenge, so the opportunities are endless.”
JICA began providing technical assistance to UNRWA’s Damascus Training Centre in 1993. Since 2000, the partnership has expanded to include initiatives such as the physical education programme, in which JICA has played a vital role in training volunteer leaders. With the help of JICA, many female students at UNRWA schools have been able to practise softball after school for the past five years.
Text and photos by Haley Bobseine