While millions of people across the world followed the FIFA World Cup final in Russia with bated breath, soccer served as a cure for one particular group in the war-torn Syria.
Due to the civil war that has been ravaging the country for past seven years, many young Syrian men sustained severe injuries that eventually led to amputations and turned their lives upside down.
However, their impairments and the love for soccer brought them together–and the game is now helping rehabilitate the players both psychologically and physically.
The Omaya Sports Club, founded in 1972, has its amputee team growing in numbers since its inception.
The man who collaborated with the sports club was a physician, Mohammed Sheikh al-Haddadin aka Abu Hassan, who helped found an amputee team to help with the treatment of those injured in the attacks.
Abu Hassan reportedly worked at a physiotherapy center in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, where wounded men and boys were trained to establish a soccer team.
Many members of the team recounted their inspiring stories.
"I joined the team when it first formed about a year ago. Coach Sheikh al-Haddadin advised the young amputees to join the team to improve their physical abilities and lighten their depression, I was convinced I should join the team," Mohammed "AbouZakariya" Kerdash told Newsweek.
Kerdash, a 37-year-old citizen of Idlib, was injured during a Syrian military airstrike in September 2016, which resulted in the amputation of his left arm. But that didn’t discourage him from signing up for the position of goalkeeper as, like other members of the team, he wanted to overcome the constraints associated with his disabilities.
"I gained a lot of benefits from the team, including strengthening my body's muscles—strengthening my right arm muscles has especially helped me in life," Kerdash added.
Abu Hassan said he knew how being on the pitch would massively help the ones suffering from the effects of the war. However, he was particularly touched by one patient, Abdelqader al-Youssef, a young man who lost his right leg while battling troops in 2015.
The 24-year-old was an avid soccer fan since his childhood and used to frequently play the game himself. In fact, he even played it on breaks from the front until he lost his leg in clashes.
“Being wounded was a huge shock to me. There were so many things I could do before my injury that I couldn’t do afterward,” said Youssef who also has a toddler son.
He recounted how doing something so basic as getting groceries everyday became an ordeal for him until he decided to join the physiotherapy soccer team and was finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“Since beginning training, I can do things I couldn’t do before. I used to say it was too hard, but now I can lift a gas canister and other things. Life doesn’t stop at an injury. Don’t lose hope or get sad at losing a limb. As our trainers told us today, there’s no handicap of the body – just of the mind,” explained Youssef.
Youssef’s optimism against all odds touched Abu Hassan, who then presented the idea to other patients at his physiotherapy center and fortunately many of them agreed with it.
Though the team was eventually able to gather up to 22 players, the war in Idlib is never far away, as one of the trainee players was killed in a bomb blast over the weekend. After hearing the news of his death, Abu Hassan said two of his friends quit as well.
The team was finally left with 16 players, the youngest of whom is 15-year-old Ammar, who reportedly lost his leg after a Russian warplane struck while he was playing soccer in his school.
Though the pitch was set up by a charity organization Shafak, Abu Hassan has yet to receive any financial assistance from international organizations to help him in his heroic mission. Apart from getting the war survivors on the field, he also arranged chess tournaments, table tennis and weightlifting activities at the physiotherapy center.
Moreover, a World Health Organization report highlighted the intensity of the situation in the war-ravaged Syria where around 1.5 million people are living with permanent disabilities, including 86,000 people whose injuries have led to amputations.
Such activities are crucial to restore normality in lives of people who might not be able to compete at annual tournaments, but they certainly are some of the bravest players on the international stage.
"We're battling despair and we have hope," Abu Hassan told Newsweek. "We love to live, just like the rest of the world. We will defy all of the pain and build hope in our hands.”
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