According to statistics provided by UNICEF, approximately 4.7 million children in Iraq required some form of humanitarian assistance in the first half of 2016.
Soccer Salam attempts to stand in that gap—delivering food, water, medicine, and blankets to “Iraq’s most vulnerable communities.”
They also deliver something else that can’t be boxed or put in a bag: smiles.
In addition to the food, water, medicine and blankets they deliver, the groups involved also deliver toys and soccer balls to Iraqi children.
Soccer Salam is the product of a collaboration between four groups: EPIC (The Education For Peace In Iraq Center), The Iraqi Children Foundation, Kardah Project International, and Goals and Dreams Outreach Foundation. Each of the four organizations have US veterans who have served in Iraq, according to Cindy Fogleman, the US Liason and Executive Director at The Iraqi Children Foundation. The groups also work with individuals and groups already working on the ground in Iraq.
They’re funded through a combination of individual donations and crowdfunding campaigns. The Iraqi Children Foundation plays a major role in organizing such fundraising efforts. According to Fogleman, funds raised are typically sent directly to trusted Iraqi partners. In doing so, the project also supports local businesses.
“The Iraqi partners are doing the more dangerous stuff,” says Fogleman. For example, sometimes their work carries them into areas near places where ISIS is active.
The project has a crowdfunding campaign going on now.
Their work isn’t always easy, and people aren’t always immediately receptive.
Soccer, then, also becomes the perfect ice breaker.
“Children and families that we encounter have fled their homes and all they have ever known in search of safety,” explains Mark Seaman, Director of Development and Communications at EPIC, “Because of the trauma and fears they experience, they are sometimes skeptical of outside help. Using soccer as an entry point in to their lives helps them open up and be receptive to the aid we deliver.”
It certainly helped during one week when the Iraqi Security Forces and their allies were attempting to clear the area in and around Mosul of ISIS militants, and many civilians were forced to flee their homes. Soccer Salam sent a team, prepared to do medical screenings and provide food and water, to an area south of Mosul.
“Migrants were able to eat, rest, and receive medical attention before continuing on their journey to safety,” recalls Seaman.
As another example of a time where soccer served as an icebreaker, Seaman thinks back to a time last Summer, when the group was distributing aid just outside Ramadi. There, they met 9-year-old Sabreen. According to Seaman, Sabreen, her mother, grandparents and seven cousins fled their home and were living in a camp located just outside the city.
Seaman still remembers what Sabreen told a Soccer Salam volunteer.
“We have a house and garden and our family was living there together in peace, but ISIS stole that from us because they don’t have families who love them,” Sabreen is reported to have said, “I promise myself that I will try to like this place until we go back to our home. We can live, and no one can take our smile.”
Soccer is a great ice breaker, and it is also a great equalizer.
“No one cares who is Sunni or Shia or Yazidi or Christian while they play,” observes Seaman, “It brings everyone together and creates joy in a place that too often lacks this feeling.”
The project doesn't just connect people in Iraq. It also builds a bridge--connecting people in the US to a group of people they might have not otherwise thought about.
“Our followers across the country are military veterans and their families, humanitarian workers, peace activists…you name it,” Seaman says, “They love to hear about the personal stories of the lives we encounter and how we can all help. They truly understand that these are peaceful people who did not choose to be displaced from their homes or live in a place torn apart by conflict.”
Unfortunately, not everyone is as receptive. The charged, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric that we’re hearing from Donald Trump is a symptom of a more widespread problem in the US today.
“I am afraid there are others, though, who consider those we seek to help as a part of ‘the problem’,” says Seaman, “They group these individuals and ISIS militants together in order to justify a strange unwillingness to understand others in the world and embrace what makes us unique.”
This tendency to paint Iraqis as “the other” also poses problems when it comes to fundraising.
“The biggest challenge is fundraising…” says Cindy Fogleman, “Like so many other people, you look at the crisis and think you can’t just stand by.”
But that is exactly what some people would rather do.
“Some people think ‘Maybe it’s too far away,’ and they don’t want to give,” says Fogleman.
Fogleman sees things a bit differently.
“To me, it’s a moral obligation. We live a comfortable life in this country,” she says.
Now, we’ve just elected a president who ran a campaign which was laced with xenophobic rhetoric. People were encouraged to be hateful and distrustful of refugees and immigrants.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
Some bought in to all the hate.
When asked how he would respond to such people, Seaman tries to get people thinking about what it would be like if one day, they were suddenly the refugees.
“Refugees leave behind everything they know in search of a freedom from fear. Families and children flee from violence because they are trying to get away from it!” he exclaims, “Imagine if your house burned to the ground, and no one took you in for fear that their house might burn down too. It is just as absurd to suggest that those seeking safety from violence and war would choose to cause it elsewhere.”