The non-governmental organization Spirit of Soccer uses the game of football, or soccer as it is called in the United States, as a medium to teach Iraqi children about the dangers posed by explosive remnants of war (ERW), as well as measures that they can take to mitigate the threat posed by these devices and how to report explosive hazards to the appropriate Iraqi authorities. Spirit of Soccer has been implementing U.S.-funded programs in Iraq for almost ten years, and in 2017 provided ERW risk education to more than 40,200 children. As Iraq starts to rebuild from the death and destruction of ISIS, U.S.-funded programs like this play a critical role in keeping Iraqis safe from ISIS’s deadly legacy.
Spirit of Soccer was awarded the Beyond Sports’ Peace and Social Justice Award for its lifesaving efforts in Iraq. Mohammad Naqib, Spirit of Soccer’s country director, traveled to New York City to attend the ceremony recognizing Spirit of Soccer’s Countering Violent Extremism project, a U.S.-funded program in Iraq designed to convey, through the game of soccer, lifesaving information about the dangers of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other ERW, as well as appropriate safety measures. The program specifically engages young men -- the demographic most likely to be targeted by ISIS and other violent non-state actors for recruitment. By winning the award, Spirit of Soccer also received an additional $50,000 which it will use to expand operations in heavily-populated Iraqi cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Tikrit.
Spirit of Soccer began implementing this project as a component of its larger Iraq program in 2016 and has, to date, reached more than 6,000 young males in communities previously held by ISIS. By socializing the young participants with adults and coaches from different mine-affected communities, Spirit of Soccer is combatting the hateful doctrine espoused by ISIS and providing a safe space for communities to heal and share experiences, often on soccer fields refurbished by the United States. In 2017, Spirit of Soccer also trained 33 staff in trauma-sensitive coaching to better identify and address childhood trauma and use soccer to form personal connections with victims suffering psychologically from their exposure to ISIS. With U.S. support, Spirit of Soccer currently supports 35 coaches implementing risk education programs across Iraq.
Spirit of Soccer works outside of Iraq, as well. The Department of State currently supports Spirit of Soccer in Iraq, Cambodia, Colombia, and Laos to better protect communities in areas affected by ERW. Last year, 126,414 people, including more than 83,000 children, from those four countries participated in a Spirit of Soccer program and gained a deeper understanding of the threats that landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other ERW pose.
Since 1993, the United States has been the world’s leading contributor to conventional weapons destruction, including mine risk education programs like Spirit of Soccer, providing more than $3.2 billion to more than 100 countries. To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: Eric Keefer serves as the Assistant Program Manager for Iraq in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.