GAME on, Lebanon: Creating inclusive spaces for children to play sports and thrive

This year’s fundraiser empowers children and youth to achieve better health, a sense of belonging and hope for the future through sports and mentoring.

05 December 2023 Andreea Enea

This October, a delegation from WDF and Novo Nordisk visited Lebanon to see the impact of our Foundation's 2023 fundraiser on Lebanese and refugee children and youth. 

The experience was transformative for everyone.

‘It is exciting that we are expanding our fundraising focus to health in a broader sense with this project, which prioritises social impact and primary prevention through physical activity and nutrition’, shares Anne Mette Wiis Vogelsang, General Manager for Novo Nordisk Switzerland, who joined the visit.   

Anne Mette refers to WDF's fundraising project, ‘Empowering Lebanese and refugee children and youth through sports to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs)’, which aims to ensure access to free, inclusive and accessible public spaces for children and youth. The project promotes physical activity and proper nutrition through sports training and health workshops in major Lebanese cities such as Beirut, Saida, Tyr, and Tripoli.  

This is particularly relevant considering Lebanon’s fragile settings where the burden of NCDs remains the largest, with a prevalence of risk factors like sedentarism increasing among host and refugee populations. 

The 18-month project is rolled out by GAME, an international non-governmental organisation working for social change through youth-led street sports and culture, advocating for safe public spaces in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and conflict areas. GAME has been active in Lebanon since 2007.

Watch how the project is empowering children and youth in Lebanon

It was the first time meeting the ambitious young team behind GAME Lebanon – an eagerly anticipated opportunity for our colleagues to see the impact of the partner’s work and understand their challenges on the ground.

Youth leading youth

‘It was refreshing to see how well-equipped the volunteering sports instructors are in promoting healthy behaviours and the well-being of the children – and their own too’, shared Jakob Sloth Madsen, WDF’s Senior Advisor. ‘The sense of igniting real change and their resourcefulness is what truly impressed me. They have a genuine interest in contributing with all they have to nurture the kids’ life skills.’ 

The children training at GAME street sports practices are happy to play together with their friends.

This speaks to the commitment of GAME Lebanon, which has trained more than 800 youth volunteers – almost half of them female and a third non-Lebanese – to become street sports coaches and role models for children. In one word, Playmakers.

Asmaa studies Physical Education and knows the impact it can have on one’s health.

The Playmakers run weekly practice sessions in local GAME Zones – public spaces that the NGO is transforming into sports facilities for children and youth to be active and adopt a healthy living while enhancing social cohesion and integration.

‘I think it is very important for kids to play sports’, shares 19-year-old Asmaa Agha, who became a Playmaker in a GAME Zone earlier this year to help train children. ‘They need to spend their energy and destress whether it is from studying or being bullied... they connect no matter their gender and this reduces racism and prejudice’.

‘Children are going through a lot due to the general problems in the country or at home, and they do not know how to control or regulate their emotions. It is important for them to have a place to practice a sport they love.’

From Playmakers to placemaking 

Several GAME Zones are adjacent to areas highly populated by refugees, to make sure they are open and accessible to the Syrian and Palestinian communities living in the areas.  

One such neighbourhood is Karantina, in Beirut.

Karantina was severely affected by the explosion at the Beirut Port in August 2020, a place that has been ‘historically marginalised and home to an already vulnerable population of diverse nationalities, ethnicities, and religions’ according to the United Nations.   

‘Transforming spaces that have been historically associated with traumatic events into something positive, bringing them to life and changing the stigmatising culture around them is a great way to motivate the youth’, remarks Hanin Odeh, WDF’s Regional Advisor.

 ‘This is especially important in a humanitarian context where the project is targeting marginalised groups, engaging them in positive activities like sports. I am proud WDF is supporting this effort.’ 

Such programs can have a considerable social impact in a nation with a population of 5.5 million, where nearly 1.5 million individuals are Syrian refugees. Out of the approximately 815,000 registered Syrian refugees, 55% are children, like ten-year-old Ali Assaf.

Ali comes from Deir El-Zor in eastern Syria and lives with his five siblings at home in Karantina. He is in the second grade and has been attending GAME practices for almost two years, which he loves. Ali lives close to his Lebanese friend Mahmoud Amsha in the Karantina GAME Zone, who attends a vocational school and has been going to the facility – his ‘second home’ for training, having fun and meeting his friends – for almost two years. He is also very fond of it since the small playground he used to go to was destroyed in the 2020 explosion.

Ali enjoys the sports practice in the Karantina GAME Zone with his friends.

The NCD-humanitarian crisis is closely linked to the issues of public space availability and accessibility.  

While the UN-Habitat recommends having 15-20% public space in urban areas, Beirut had only 0.5% with only two playgrounds available with free access – a discouraging environment for physical activity, amplified by the lack of opportunities for organised sports, active play, and physical environments.   

Founded on an empowerment approach, GAME Lebanon has been tackling this issue by activating local communities and partners in regenerating public spaces as GAME Zones. This process of placemaking fosters equal representation, social cohesion and a sense of identity and belonging – initiatives which ‘are evidence of a response to urgent needs’, according to a 2018 article on Lebanon cities’ public space.

The diversity of the community convinced Lynn Hajj (second from left) to stay within GAME Lebanon and do more for others.

25-year-old Lynn Hajj told us more about the activities. Lynn became project coordinator at GAME Lebanon in 2020, after being a Playmaker for eight years. ‘I used to train there as a kid and I looked up to all the Playmakers, I wanted to be like them’.

‘GAME is about creating a sense of community where everyone is your friend and shares the same values, positive interests such as sports, learning to be nice and accept each other; we are all equal’.

Mona Istanbuli has been with GAME Lebanon since 2008.

With almost half of the volunteers being female Playmakers, the community is defined by diversity and inclusion. ‘I grew up being the only girl in school interested in sports and, when I joined GAME, it meant a lot to me to find other girls with the same interests.’

Mona Istanbuli is a physical education trainer and Zone Manager in the Karantina area in Beirut. Now, her children are part of it, too.

‘My kids started as Players and now some of them are volunteers’, Mona told us.

‘They have learned many skills, not just sports fundamentals but also life skills, they made friends and learned to connect and socialise. They teach children about healthy lifestyles to grow well.’

Healthy minds in healthy bodies  

Physical health and mental well-being are both central factors in reducing NCDs (WHO 2013). 

‘There is such a strong focus on mental health and healthy development of the children and volunteers’, adds Effie Voursouki, WDF’s fundraising project manager. ‘Many told us they were lonely or shy before joining GAME, and now it is their favourite place to be’.

WDF’s Effie Voursouki and Hanin Odeh listen to the children training in GAME Zones.

To promote healthy minds in healthy bodies and help prevent NCDs, 12 Playmakers are being trained as Health Promotion Ambassadors to help build a platform for delivering nutrition-based education to larger groups of children and youth living in disadvantaged settings.

The training will expand their knowledge of the impact of healthy habits on their future. The project also promotes dialogue sessions facilitated by an expert in nutritious food, including demonstrations and tasting for families.

The training takes place during educational health workshops which educate young people to disseminate positive messages about a healthy lifestyle at physical and mental levels.

The delegation had the chance to join the first workshop organised by GAME for Health Ambassadors. ‘Seeing the kids, understanding how important it is for them to have a place to dream, a place to move, learning about nutrition and diseases like diabetes, all this impacted me’, shares Daniel Emanuel Soudani, Vice President of Production and Investment Finance at Novo Nordisk.

Daniel Emanuel Soudani (left) joined the team challenges and interactive lessons at the workshop.

Making more space for a healthy generation 

GAME Lebanon has been closely collaborating with schools, municipalities and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. By leveraging the enthusiasm of local communities and partners and engaging them around public spaces, these programmes would become sustainable, promoting healthy cities with a positive effect on physical activity levels among kids and youth. 

The NGO is already working on expanding access to safe public spaces for sports and culture in urban areas by building GAME Houses – innovative indoor spaces for multiple street sports training and cultural activities.

One GAME House is being built in the Karantina area and it will be a multi-sport complex for the youth and children of Beirut.  

GAME Houses would operate all year round providing all types of street sports in one place, lowering the threshold for participation. This would make it easier for children and youth to engage in healthier hobbies with their friends or new people who share the same interests.

By empowering children and youth in Lebanon to play sports and learn about healthy nutrition, more families and local communities can learn to better protect their health.

Lynn Hajj hopes that ‘creating this sports hub will not only help them become more active but also part of a bigger, positive community that will push for change for the future generations in Lebanon’.

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