A little piece of Paris St Germain in Ukhia

Five days a week, children aged between 6 and 18, come to the sports centre – a joint collaboration of Friendship SPO, KLABU and Paris Saint Germain – to play football, basketball, cricket, futsal, badminton, and sepak takraw

Groups of children dressed in colourful jerseys and boots were clamouring all over the premises. © Syed Zakir Hossain/The Business Standard
by Promila Kanya (The Business Standard)
June 27, 2024

One group was playing football in a large, rectangular space, while another group was squealing in delight as a trainer made them exercise to music. 

The iconic bright red and blue colours, representing French Ligue 1 football club Paris Saint Germain (PSG), were splashed all across the space. 

Tables with big, red umbrellas were put in the centre, adding a children’s park vibe to the whole scene. 

The environment was happy and vibrant, like a school playground. Groups of children dressed in colourful jerseys and boots were clamouring all around us. 

In one corner, there was a large television screen where a football match was showing. Some chairs were kept in front of it for the tiny viewers. 

The PSG logo was prominent everywhere. The E-hub space had shelves to store the sports equipment. It also had a fridge full of chilled water bottles so that the children did not go thirsty from playing in the heat. 

Everything ran on solar energy and batteries. 

Natural fencing of dense, green plants and bushes surrounded the entire area. 

My colleague exclaimed, “It’s a little piece of Europe in Ukhia!” 

This was neither a school nor a park, rather, it was a sports centre built on top of a hill in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. 

And all of these children were part of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals (FDMN) community, or Rohingya refugees, as they are more commonly known. 
Five days a week, children aged between 6 and 18, come here to play football, basketball, cricket, futsal, badminton, and sepak takraw (a South-East Asian sport, also known as kick volleyball or foot volleyball).

Smiling through a gap tooth, 10-year-old Umme Sadia with a pretty ponytail and kohl-rimmed eyes, told us, “I love to play badminton! I have other girlfriends here as well, I like playing with them too.” 

When we were climbing up the steep hill to reach the centre, stepping on stairs made of geo-bags with long bamboo poles in place of railings, all we could concentrate on was our breathing. The blazing sun made it more difficult, as sweat drenched us. 

Open drains on both sides of the stairs carried dirty water downhill. 

Some nearby residents poked their heads out of their tiny huts with blue polythene roofs with curiosity, while most went on with their daily work.

After reaching the top, we were nearly breathless, mostly from the physical exertion, but also from what we witnessed. All these children playing around was truly a wonderful sight. 

The club centre, along with a mobile sports library (MSL), began their journey in December 2021 under a project titled ‘Nutrition, Recreation, and Physical Fitness of Rohingya & Host Community Children of Cox’s Bazar (NRPFRHC)’-  a joint initiation of Friendship, KLABU and PSG. Friendship Netherlands is coordinating it.

KLABU is a Dutch organisation specialising in building sports and recreational facilities in refugee camps, whereas some of the most famous football players in the world like Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messie, and Neymar have played for PSG. 

The project also operates in seven schools in the host community: Moriccha Palong High School, Bhalukia Palong High School, Palong Adarsha High School, Ukhia Government High School, NICGB High School, Thaingkhali High School and Palongkhali High School. 

Every week, the mobile sports library, a vehicle painted in red and blue and carrying the trainer and the equipment, visits the schools. The children are trained according to school shifts, morning and day. 

Male and female football teams developed under the project have become sub-district and district level champions in Ukhia and Cox’s Bazar. 

Molla Shihab Uddin, the project coordinator at Ukhia, shared with us that the day we visited the club centre (11 June) was coincidentally the first time the UN International Day of Play was being observed. 

He also explained why Camp no 19 was chosen as the project area, although there are 33 Rohingya camps in Ukhia and Teknaf, and another in Bhashan Char. “This particular camp has a bit of extra space, unlike the other ones. Familiarity also played a role here, as we already had some projects running at this camp.”  

Under the project, there are three designated playgrounds at this camp as well, but it is tough to maintain them during monsoon when the largest one remains submerged in water for around five months.   

Despite all the challenges, till date, the Friendship-KLABU-PSG project has touched the lives of 2,800 beneficiaries, all of whom are children and youth. 

Doubling as a safe space for children

Eight-year-old Hasmatullah seemed irritated when we wanted to talk to him. After all, he had to leave behind a very interesting football match with his friends. No matter how much we tried to make him laugh, he simply would not!

Around 100 children are born in the Rohingya camps every day. And more are likely to be born in the future.  Hasmatullah and thousands of children like him are confined within the camp areas, growing up in poverty with an acute identity crisis. 

At the club centre, they get to be themselves, even if for a short period of time. It was evident in the way they were jumping with joy to the music or running around with their friends.

Although there is a team of trainers, girls’ mobilisers, cleaner and security guard looking after them, the children themselves mark their entry on the registrar book, take the jerseys, shoes, balls etc from the shelves. 

They ask for a drink of cold water when they are thirsty, or change the programme on the television if it is being repeated. After they are done playing, they put everything back on the shelves and return the jerseys (these are washed and dried before the next use). 

Shihab said that when this interactive space for children was opened, the first reaction from the camp residents was curiosity. 

With time, they became more comfortable with the idea of sending their children here. Now, there are times when a father comes here with his daughters, asking the authorities to admit them into the training sessions. 

Barriers still remain, for example, parents do not send daughters above the age of 14 to the club centre, and girls in general are not allowed to play on the fields, out in the open. 

David Chakma has been a football trainer for the Friendship-KLABU-PSG project since October 2022. An expert athlete, he was a district-level referee. “I have faced no communication gap whatsoever while training the children. I enjoy teaching them, and they enjoy the time we spend with them,” he said. 

Shimu and Sufaida, two of the girls’ mobilisers, shared with us that they hold social awareness sessions with the children every day. “We teach them about safety and security, personal hygiene and the benefits of playing. We also try to speak to the parents,” they said. 

The club centre remains open five days a week from 8:30 am till 12:00 pm and on an average, around 40-50 girls and 100-150 boys come here every day. 

Note: This article was originally published in The Business Standard, June 27, 2024.

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