Christian girls kick the ball around a field in Iraq’s Batalla, a former Islamic State stronghold where football is helping them dream of a better future, encouraged by their coach.
The Islamic State group took control of the town in 2014 during its sweep through the northern province of Nineveh.
Four years after IS was defeated, the roughly 1,500 families who returned have been attempting to restore some semblance of normalcy to Batalla, about 12 kilometers (seven miles) east of Mosul, which was once its de facto capital in Iraq.
Thanks to funding from Lara, an Iraqi Christian non-governmental organization, a football academy for girls opened its doors six months ago, complete with artificial turf.
“Everything we do here is to teach young girls the fundamentals of football,” said coach Joanne Yusef Chaba.
The coach, a 22-year-old physical education graduate, stated her ambition was to “start a women’s team that will compete in the future” in one of Iraq’s two existing women’s leagues.
The girls, dressed in brightly colored bibs, stretch on the freshly laid pitch before Yusef Chaba blows the whistle to signal the start of practice.
Following a pass exchange, one of the players gains control of the ball before dribbling the length of the 40-meter (yard) pitch and unleashing a shot that rattles the post.
‘Lack of support’
“Being here allows us to forget about the hard times,” Yusef Chaba, who fled to Arbil with her family two hours before the IS arrived in her hometown, said.
“Today, when people see us, it raises their hopes and gives them confidence,” said the recently graduated job seeker. “We forget about our daily worries here.”
The academy enrolls about 50 girls aged 10 to 15, who attend two-hour training sessions twice a week.
Miral Jamal was six years old when she and her family fled Bartalla to escape the Islamic State. She is now 13 years old and is very interested in football.
“The players here are in a good mood,” the schoolgirl said.
“Football calms us down… There is nothing else to do in town. “I’m excited about the training sessions.”
The families’ small monthly contributions – between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($3 and $7) – go toward renting the field on church property.
Other expenses are covered by the four founders, who are from local families.
Hala Thomas, who assisted in the academy’s inception, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with government officials and seek funding.
She was given promises, but nothing concrete was given to her.
“We don’t have enough money to buy more balls, outfits, or training equipment,” explained the 55-year-old, who chose to stay in her hometown rather than join her sons in the Netherlands.
“Despite the lack of support from sports institutions, we are optimistic that we will be able to establish a women’s football team,” she added.
‘Breath of fresh air’
Hundreds of thousands of women were subjected to IS’s incorrect interpretation of Islam during its three-year rule over nearly a third of Iraq, with punishments including beatings and executions.
IS members raped, kidnapped, and enslaved thousands of women and adolescent girls in Mosul and its surrounding province.
Following the IS onslaught in northern Nineveh province in 2014, tens of thousands of Christians fled, some to nearby Iraqi Kurdistan and others into exile.
This has only exacerbated an exodus that has seen Iraq’s Christian minority shrink from more than 1.5 million to around 400,000 since the US-led invasion in 2003.