Kicking Soccer Balls While Militias Shoot Kalashnikovs

PHOTO: Nour playing soccer

Nour and his fellow Syrians have been playing soccer, the universal sport, as long as they can remember. They never imagined they would be exiled to a sandy field in Lebanon, scoring goals to the sound of gunfire.

But when you're a Syrian refugee, skills don't always translate to earnings.

"When I met Nour, I knew right away he was a top player," says Bilal Nablousi, who is Lebanese and runs a local soccer academy for kids in this northern Lebanese city, where thousands of Syrians have taken refuge as the conflict intensifies along the neighboring Syrian border. "But the top club teams would have had to pay him as a foreigner since he's Syrian, so they rejected him. They'd rather get three Lebanese for his salary."

Regardless of the talent of amateurs like Nour, only well-known Syrian players, like Ahmed Akkari, are awarded contracts.

Unable to join the Lebanese clubs, a group of Syrians in their 20s decided to form their own team. They play for the love of the game, and to remind themselves of a time before war forced them off their home fields.

"We made this team for ourselves," says Nour, 23. "It's not something official."

Tripoli is an unstable city in an increasingly tense country. On its streets there are flags of the revolution, photos of local Lebanese men killed fighting alongside Syrian rebels, and posters of the notorious Sheik Ahmad Assir, whose firebrand politics led the Lebanese army to raid his compound in Sidon (southern Lebanon) last month.

On a recent day, members of the soccer team were at a popular local café.

"People here know the truth about politics," says Omar Warwar, the team's only Lebanese player. Despite growing tension between locals and Syrians, the 25-year-old says he wants to play with the group because "I feel Syrian inside."

Bilal, a Syrian player, catches sight of two young boys passing by the café on a motor scooter. "The match is on at 6!" he yells. "Be sure to be there, it's an important game!" The boys speed off to gather their friends. "I'm the mukhtar (local leader) of soccer," he says. On his phone, he has a photo of players from another amateur team. They smile broadly, wearing banners across their chests with the tri-starred flag of the Syrian revolution.

In Syria, the players say they could make a living from their sport. Their division would pay $10 per goal, and players would earn $20 each if the team won a match. "Syria is a better place to play. The population is 27 million and here there are only 4 million, so the pool is larger," says Nour.

Soccer and Politics Don't Mix

Back in Syria, the national team continues to play. But these players harbor no ill will against those who stayed behind.

"To play soccer doesn't have to do with being affiliated politically. Even if they stay in Syria it doesn't mean they have chosen a side. They just can't express their views," says Abdel Rahman. "Back in Syria, it's not necessarily about your political views, but joining the national team can depend on connections and money. When we play we don't talk about politics."

But politics were the end of the Nowayir club in Hama, where Nour and his friend Ziwar, 23, once played. One of Syria's premier teams, it attracted thousands of fans before ceasing to exist in the early days of the revolution. Nasr Maksoud, director of the local field, says his teams always play to the sounds of gunfire. / Alia Haju for Syria Deeply

Nasr Maksoud, director of the local field, says his teams always play to the sounds of gunfire. / Alia Haju for Syria Deeply

"The club administration started being vocal about supporting the revolution, and once that happened, the league downgraded us to Division II," Nour said. Faced with the decision of playing below their skill level or quitting, most players chose the latter.

They still haven't chosen a name for their new Lebanon-based team.

"The Syrian Revolution," says Bilal.

"No!" says Abdel Rahman. "It's about sports, nothing else. Politics and soccer should not mix."

The Misfat club in the Syrian city of Banias is where Abdel Rahman, 22, and his brother Osama, 21, used to play. It's still in operation. But the brothers are stuck in Tripoli.

"I filed for university exemption too late, so I could be drafted into the Syrian army if I go back," says Osama. He fled Syria in the early days of the revolution. "Back in Banias, I couldn't go to the protests near me because the army blocked the road from my village," he says. "But the police came and accused me of being an activist, so I left."

Their parents remain behind in Banias, while the brothers work at a supermarket to pay the 100,000 Lebanese pound ($66) rent for their Tripoli apartment.

Fellow player Ziwar, 23, stands up to leave. Tomorrow, the Hama native starts his final law school exams. It's his last year, and he's hoping to rejoin his family in Syria as soon as possible. "In Lebanon, only citizens can be lawyers, so I have no future here. God willing I will go back to practice in Damascus next year," he says.

While soccer is the men's passion, they know that academics is their future. When not at practice, "We all attend university here," says Nour al-Melli, who studies history.

Syrians pay $700 per year for tuition, while Lebanese pay the in-country fee of $150.

"This year my parents couldn't pay the fees and neither can I, so I have to work. I will go back and finish my degree when our financial situation is better," Nour says.

With the raging war in Syria and deteriorating security in Lebanon, they know that they won't be able to make a living – as they'd once hoped – as professional athletes.

Soccer is an escape from a new life marred by financial concerns. Life in Lebanon is expensive compared to Syria. No longer a student, Nour doesn't have access to discounted university apartments. He pays $100 a month for a bed in a two-bedroom house shared with six other young men. His father, who could once afford his son's fees through his work as a butcher, now barely makes ends meet.

Another player, Omar, says the locals have raised prices significantly since the Syrians began arriving. "An apartment that used to be $200 is now $500 per month," he says. "In the villages people help one another, but in the city they take advantage. But we also have people who are really helping." Next month, one of his friends will open an eight-floor hotel and provide rooms to 100 families rent-free.

"We are like 'Les Miserables' here," he says.

Still, none of the young players have registered as refugees. "I want to wait and see what happens," says Nour.

Ahmed, who is also from Hama, plans to go to work in Beirut when he finishes his law degree. He misses playing in Syria with a normal schedule. "Of course it is better to have an organized team," he says. A little later, he and Osama walk towards the sandy field where they will have a short practice.

"My father had offered me money not to play football back in Syria," Ahmed laughs. "He wanted me to just study. Of course I refused. What else do we have in Hama besides football?"

The team normally plays in a stadium, but today they go to practice at a sandy field in Kobbe, before a row of high rises and alongside a neglected amusement park with a rusting Ferris wheel.

Another match is finishing up, and the players have to hold their jerseys over their eyes when the wind blows. The sidewalk along the edge of the field is littered with trash. There is no place for the (mostly male) spectators to sit. A deafening round of gunfire sounds in the distance.

Nasr Maksoud, the director of the field, walks around with his laminated schedule on a clipboard. "We are here every day from 5:30-8 p.m. having matches. We always play to gunfire like this, but Kobbe district is safe," he says.

He notes that the players come from all districts – even those at odds with one another, like Bab al-Tabbaneh, which is majority Sunni, and Jabal Mohsen, which is predominantly Alawite.

As teams scrimmage, Bilal calls for a young boy to shoot. The boy goes in for the kick.

"Look," Bilal says, proud. "When I say shoot, he shoots."

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