"Captains of Zaatari" – the unshakeable power of dreams

Still from the film "Captains of Zaatari".
Still from the film "Captains of Zaatari".

Berlin's annual Human Rights Film Festival closed at the weekend. One entry to the festival was the documentary "Captains of Zaatari". Its Egyptian director Ali El Arabi focuses on young refugees from Syria, who dream of escaping their dismal life in the Zaatari refugee camp with the help of football. Rene Wildangel reports for Qantara.de

By René Wildangel

Zaatari is symbolic of what has happened to those people who have fled Syria. The refugee camp in Jordan began to grow rapidly soon after the Syrian war broke out. Before long, it was regarded as more of a town than a camp. At its peak, it was home to 150,000 people, and today there are still almost 80,000 Syrian refugees living there – half of them children. It contains 32 schools and eight hospitals.

For the refugee agency UNHCR, and the numerous humanitarian organisations working on the ground there, the camp was for a long time a kind of interesting field for experimentation. What is the best way to govern a city of refugees that has grown so rapidly and chaotically? What strategies can be used to establish some kind of normality? The German UNHCR leader Kilian Kleinschmidt therefore prefers to call himself the "mayor" of Zaatari, rather than the head of the refugee camp.  

But all these supposedly innovative approaches and new ideas do little to alter a simple truth: most people here have lost everything in their Syrian homeland – not just their houses, possessions, jobs and futures, but also many friends and relatives. And Zaatari is the dismal place where, robbed of all hope, they must now spend all their time: dusty, overcrowded, barren and with no prospect of work.

The pervasive atmosphere of many refugee films at the festival is thus a sense of being stuck, physically and mentally. It isn’t possible to travel on, and the mood in receiving countries such as Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon is increasingly hostile, not least due to their own precarious economic and political situation.

The "Syrian Dream Team"

This is also the situation that faces the two friends Fawzi and Mahmoud, who are portrayed in Captains of Zaatari, a film by the Egyptian director Ali El Arabi. There is only one subject in the camp that excites them and gives them hopes of one day leaving with their heads held high: football. They are the captains of a "Syrian Dream Team", an all-star team in Zaatari. And while their parents are proud of them, they still urge their children to keep going to school. But: "Why should I get an education?" argues Mahmoud. "I’m a refugee. If I graduate high school, I’ll still be a refugee with a school-leaving certificate."

Still from the film "Caiptains of Zaatari" (photo: Inga Gerke)
Playing football in the dusty, overcrowded and desolate Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan: In his documentary "Captains of Zaatari", Egyptian director Ali El Arabi portrays two young refugees from Syria who see football as a chance to leave their bleak life in the refugee camp behind them. The film is a great example of the unshakeable power of dreams, writes Wildangel. "But it also shows their limitations very clearly: Mahmoud and Fawzi’s homeland lies in ruins, and their families are still living in undignified conditions in the camp. Fawzi’s father dies of cancer, partly because of the poor healthcare provision there"

Unlike school, the pair see football as a chance to leave the camp behind them. Kick-abouts are going on all across the camp, and there is a lot of talent. And a few international projects do exist to offer the very best players escape routes out of the desolation of the camp. One of these is run in cooperation with Brazil’s Perolas Negras Soccer Academy in the state of Rio, which invites a few talented young people over to Brazil via a complex selection process.

Every three months, scouts from the Qatari Aspire Academy come to seek out talented players in Zaatari. Fawzi and Mahmoud are on their radar, too. And Mahmoud’s dream, at least, is fulfilled when the "Syrian Dream Team" from Zaatari are invited to the 2017 international under-17 Al-Kaas Cup in Qatar, as guests of honour, and he is picked as team captain. His friend, the highly talented Fawzi, is initially rejected on age grounds, but is then permitted to take part and travel to Qatar after all. Compared with the dusty pitches of the camp, the Aspire Academy’s carefully-tended lush green pitches seem like a dreamworld.

A glimmer of hope in Qatar

The football academy, into which a huge amount of money and effort has been poured since 2004, is an attempt to polish up the reputation of the future World Cup hosts Qatar, which has been dented by corruption and human rights abuses. Talented young players train there, and every winter, top European sides are invited over – Bayern Munich has held its winter training camp there since 2011. But Amnesty International has also accused the Aspire Foundation of being involved in serious human rights abuses.

The 2016 report "The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game" says, among other things, that: "99 migrant workers maintaining the green spaces in the surrounding Aspire Zone sports complex were housed in squalid and cramped accommodation. They all reported being paid less than promised and had paid substantial fees in their home country. Their passports were confiscated by the company on arrival in Qatar."

It’s true that the World Cup hosts have since made an effort to push through reforms, but the circumstances remain precarious. And although the film doesn’t touch on this, it is paradoxical that the place where the Syrian refugees find a glimmer of hope should be somewhere that migrants, largely from South and South-East Asia, are being exploited. But for Fawzi and Mahmoud, it’s the realisation of their very personal dream.

In Qatar, they and their fellow players meet some of their heroes, the members of Bayern Munich, the Spanish football star Xavi Hernandez and the French player David Trezeguet – though many of them would have been even more excited to meet superstar Christiano Ronaldo. The achievements in the training games are mixed, and Fawzi gets injured. But in the match against the youth team from the Saudi premier league team Al-Ahly FC, they win a hard-fought victory. At home in Zaatari, proud friends and relatives follow the action on satellite TV.


Little chance of escaping from their escape

Along with Fawzi and Mahmoud’s joy over the extraordinary days they have spent at the football academy comes a desire to give other young people the same kind of opportunity. After the tournament, they return to Zaatari and throw themselves into coaching the next generation. Their attitude to school has changed, too. In Qatar, they have seen that even a successful footballer won’t get far without speaking English.

The documentary Captains of Zaatari has already been shown at this year’s renowned Sundance Festival, and held up as an example of the unshakeable power of dreams. But it also shows their limitations very clearly: Mahmoud and Fawzi’s homeland lies in ruins, and their families are still living in undignified conditions in the camp. Fawzi’s father dies of cancer, partly because of the poor healthcare provision there. And ultimately, the hope of escaping the camp through football  is an exclusively masculine one, a door that remains closed to the camp’s girls. And it is the young women there who are especially vulnerable.

There is no doubt that football has huge potential to contribute to the integration of refugees. In Europe, especially since 2015, countless projects have been set up in this area. But those opportunities are open only to those who have made it to an increasingly sealed-off EU. For most refugees, there is little chance of escaping their escape. The film makes it clear how important it is to have hopes to cling to – but also that lasting solutions need to look different.

Rene Wildangel

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin