Barca seek to turn Lesbos camps into fields of dreams for child refugees

FILE PHOTO: Refugee children train during the visit of Barcelona FC former players in Mytilene city, on the island of Lesbos, Greece March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) - It may not be the Nou Camp, but the charity arm of soccer giants Barcelona has been giving child refugees living in temporary shelters on Lesbos a shot at the beautiful game.

Organisers say the soccer training sessions for children hosted at two refugee camps on the Greek island promote dialogue, respect and tolerance among the young participants, helping to easing stress and nurture friendships.

"We know we can influence them, we can help them to dream, we can show them the future," said Jordi Cardoner, vice president of Barcelona and the Barca Foundation.

Lesbos was once one of the main gateways into Europe for refugees fleeing conflict. Hundreds of thousands of refugees passed through Greece at the peak of Europe's migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016.

The Greek gateway has largely shut, but up to 15,000 refugees remain in camps on outlying Greek islands in conditions decried as inhumane by many aid organisations.

Some of Greece’s island camps have grown so congested that they operate at more than double their capacity, according to the latest government figures. To ease overcrowding, authorities have begun moving hundreds to facilities on the mainland.

Hundreds of children there have signed up to the Barca Soccer FutbolNet programme since its implementation in July 2017, with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the NGO Movement on the Ground.

Children from two refugee camps attend a soccer academy on the island. Training sessions last two hours and are held three times a week. The project employs coaches who are refugees themselves, and who have been granted asylum.

"These guys are unaccompanied minors, they are here without parents and they have nobody to tell them what´s right or wrong," said Aesa Osso, a Syrian coach.

"So from this programme they learn a lot of values like respect, they respect each other, teamwork, for example 20 children are living in a box and they help each other to clean up the room everyday," he said, referring to the shipping containers many of camp residents live in. Many also live boxed in by plastic sheeting.

A third of participants in the programme are girls.

Baloot Ali from Pakistan, who lives at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos with her three sisters, dreams of becoming a football coach.

"They (people) used to say that football was only for boys, not for girls but now there is no difference between girls and boys. We are equal," the 15-year-old told Reuters.

(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Alison Williams)

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