I’m Emily – the new Program Development and Institutional Fundraising Coordinator here at MA-UK Myanmar. In December, I travelled to Sittwe in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, to meet our team there and visit some of our projects on the ground for the first time. Over five days, I visited lots of projects, both in villages, and in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, all of them focused on improving the lives of people who have suffered from years of ethnic conflict. Some projects focused on improving education, such as through the construction of school facilities, and the provision of healthy, nutritious meals at school. Others involved building shelters for those in IDP camps to protect them from the elements and reduce overcrowding, or teaching women and girls income-generating skills like sewing. The positive impact these projects were having on the lives of those they support was clear to see.
However, what stood out the most for me was the Football Tournament in Darpaing IDP Camp (home to 130,000 Rohingya), implemented in partnership with Flamengo FC and Muslim Aid UK. This project, organized over two weeks in December, saw 16 teams (266 12-16 age players from 16 IDP camps) Sittwe area, come together to participate in the first football tournament of its kind in this region. Most of the boys involved have been living here since the camp was established in 2012 to protect Rohingya fleeing from violent anti-Muslim conflict. School and play are not options for many of them. Instead, they have to work to support their families from a young age. In the seven years that the camp has existed, there has been nothing like this event before. We got to see a semi-final match, played between two competing teams, both sides dressed smartly in brightly coloured kits with their names printed on the back. The crowd who came to watch was absolutely huge, with hundreds if not thousands of people crammed in at all sides of the pitch. I was lucky enough to have a front row seat to the action, which was at times a little too close, as the ball came flying over our heads, rapidly pursued by a pair of players from opposing teams, kicking up dust as they came scrambling after it.
It was a game marked by professionalism, from the teams themselves, and from their coaches, referees and linesmen (all volunteers from the camp community) as well as outpourings of emotion – euphoria or despair, depending on your allegiance – when a goal was scored. As one community member told us, “”we’ve never witnessed a happier event than this for [the] seven years we’ve been here. Everybody became suddenly alive!” This project increased the psycho-social wellbeing of these young people, and it was wonderful to see how much happiness and excitement it brought the wider camp community. But most importantly, I learned that this project also supported the establishment of a Sports Committee, made up of sports-mad residents of the camp, which helped to organize the tournament. This means the community has been empowered to hold further recreational activities in the future, of which they have full ownership and direction. Now that the Committee has been set up, has a pitch area set aside specifically for football and other sports activities, and has experience organizing such a well-run event, we hope that this can become an annual event at Darpaing. Hopefully it will also inspire other NGOs to support similar sporting events in IDP camps, for the benefit of whole communities.