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Champions League Final gives Syrian refugees a welcome break from reality

Syrian refugees watch the Champions League Final in the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where residents say the game has let them forget the struggles of camp life
Syrian refugees crammed into a local cafe watch with bated breath as Barcelona clinch victory in the crunch final (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)

Domiz, IRAQ – Café owner Nawaf Qassim has been preparing for the Champions League Final all day on Saturday. The tobacco is fully stocked, tables have been rearranged to cater for the maximum number of guests and Qassim is excited. Tonight, despite years of hardship as a Syrian refugee, he can think of nothing else but the game.

“It’s going to be like this tonight,” Qassim says, meshing together the fingers of both hands to indicate the popularity of the game between Spain’s Barcelona and their rival, Juventus from Italy. “We’ll be packed!”

Qassim’s café, Abu Ahmad Café, is on the main street at Domiz Refugee Camp. Usually, the café doesn’t get much business. With work hard to come by and incomes constrained, splurging on an evening spent drinking tea and smoking “argila,” - tobacco waterpipes - is a luxury. Football however, is an exception – particularly when either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the two most popular teams in the Middle East, are even tangentially involved.

Domiz camp, in the autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has housed 70,000 Syrians for four years now. Visitors to the camp, which is home mainly to refugees from Syria’s northern Kurdish region, will find tales of hardship down every dusty path and in every makeshift home.

In the run-up to the game on Saturday night, though, most of the open space in the camp is filled with young men playing football with friends, waiting for the game to start in Berlin. One young man who’s been living in the camp for four years wears a Real Madrid jersey, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s number seven emblazoned on the back. He’s not happy Real Madrid won’t be playing in the final, but he readily supports Juventus. For tonight, he’s willing to forget that Juventus knocked Real Madrid out of the competition last month, in the hope of seeing Real Madrid’s fierce rivals, Barcelona, lose out in the final.

A young refugee, wearing the Number 7 shirt of Christiano Ronaldo, takes a shot for Domuz's version of Real Madrid (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)

For the young Real Madrid fan, football is his only reprieve from life in the camp.

“When we come back to the house [after looking for work], we don’t enjoy anything at home: we just come back to the pitch to play football. We don’t go home until it gets dark,” he tells Middle East Eye, out of breath after his pacey game.  “I love football. It’s the most important thing to me.”

Anticipation ahead of the Champions League Final has gripped the camp, and given the football-crazy residents a chance for some respite – at least for a few hours.

Even thirty minutes before kick-off, Qassim’s café is crammed, and the owner is busy puzzling over how to pack in even more tables and chairs.

By the time the game starts, it’s impossible to tell the café is situated in the usually bleak setting of a refugee camp.

Hetham Musto, a Real Madrid fan from Damascus, came early to get a good seat at the front of the smoky room.

“We come here to watch the game: it helps us forget the bad situation we are in,” Musto tells MEE. “And a special night like this gives us an especially good feeling. Anyone who loves sports will forget about whatever else is going on while watching the big game.”

Musto smokes a traditional tobacco waterpipe as he watches the game (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)

Within the first five minutes of the game, Barcelona scores and the café’s patrons erupt. Half are celebrating the goal, while the other half – Real Madrid supporters – bemoan Juventus, their newly adopted team, and their terrible start in the crunch game.

Fener Hajo, a Barcelona supporter and camp resident, has been waiting for the game for weeks ever since his team defeated German champion Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. A passionate speaker, he is clearly thrilled to be talking about the team he’s supported his whole life. “Barcelona are the best team in the world,” he enthuses, a wide smile on his face.

Hajo isn’t the only one to be excited about the game. Throughout the day a palpable sense of excitement has filled the alleyways, with children setting up games in any open space they can find and dividing themselves out into two teams: Juventus and Barcelona. Kids celebrate as they score through makeshift goalposts fashioned from pieces of clothing, pretending to be their favourite player showing off in front of hordes of imagined adoring fans.

Football supporters like Hajo in the camp say the final has brought them a collective sigh of relief – today is about enjoying life, not reliving the problems of the last four years.

“You can’t run away from your feelings about life in the camp. Our lives, our houses, our situation, they all give you a heavy a feeling inside,” Hajo said. “But sometimes when there is a football game like this, it takes away some of those bad things.”

Supporting Barcelona is a good choice for a football fan who wants to cheer their team to glory often. One of the most successful football teams in the world, Barcelona have gained a huge following worldwide thanks to their successes. For Hajo, getting the chance to celebrate success year after year has added a needed positive to years of recent upheaval.

But in all sports, there are highs and lows, and failure comes along with success. Hajo holds his head in his hands as Juventus score a quick equalizer in the second half. Now it’s a chance for the other half of the café to bask in the sudden goal in football’s showpiece game. Playful banter fills the spaces between rival tables, and Musto, the Real Madrid supporter from Damascus, is revelling in it, having adopted Juventus for the game.

Talk of war, an unavoidable everyday occurrence in Domiz, has been side-lined for the night. Arguments are stoked not by politics and militia groups, but by penalty claims and goals that never were. Barcelona’s second goal makes the playful tension even more palpable in the packed smoke-filled café. The thin walls of the café shake as fans jump from plastic seats and beat their hands on tables and walls.

While all of the cafés in the Domiz camp are packed, Qassim’s is the most popular. Qassim is famous known here for his easy-going demeanour and his generosity. Just last week he closed his café to cater, for free, to a private wedding for a couple who couldn’t afford to hire a proper hall.

Qassim spent the day getting ready for the influx of customers who packed out his small cafe in Domiz Refugee Camp (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)

Qassim says he does what he can to help his community. But tonight doesn’t seem like work as he cheers along with the packed crowd.

As the evening draws to a close, Barcelona’s third goal and the game’s last sees Juventus fans begin to trail out, dejected, even before the last minute of injury time. When the final whistle eventually blows, the jubilant Barcelona fans stream out of the café, smiling and chatting loudly, as they disappear off into the darkened paths of Domiz.

Tonight they will celebrate into the early hours of the morning, before going back to an all too familiar reality – the daily struggle as a Syrian refugee in Iraq.

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