For the love of squash: a story from Jordan
By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina
Popularity for squash in the Middle East was not something that came to my mind when I first arrived in Jordan, actually, when mentioning squash the first thing that came to my mind was “which game is squash?” I never really thought of squash as much of a popular sport in general, so seeing a community of squash players in Jordan was definitely a head-turner.
I was invited to come along and watch a Jordan squash organization, Squash Dreamers, practice. When I arrived, I saw five young girls ready to take English lessons. The girls, all Syrian refugees, have intense squash and English lessons with Squash Dreamers on a weekly basis.
Squash acts not only as a pass time for these girls but also as a new opportunity for seeing the world, something Squash Dreamers is bringing to life.
But can they really do it? Will squash create a brighter future for these kids?
Squash and Jordan
The game of squash was created around the nineteenth century in England, it is played by smacking a ball against a wall with a squash racket, if you fail to hit the ball, you lose; simple enough. What’s Jordan got to do with this though?
Jordan is a country that is pretty keen on their sports, having various community centres for people to play sports in – from martial arts to ball sports, also with their own federations available, including the Jordan Squash Federation. So, sports are a thing here.
Another thing that is also common with Jordan and sports here though are refugees.
Sports and refugees
Jordan is a country that has great refugees intake, and one that has the second highest refugee population globally. Most of these refugees come from Syria with more than 600,000 people, 47 percent of them made up of children.
This high intake, especially with many being young people and children, many NGOs have created some forms of initiatives to help them grow and have fun, one of the more popular methods is sports, which brings us to squash.
The Squash Dreamers
“The main goal is to open up a lot of life opportunities for the girls and believe that squash is going to open a lot of life opportunities for them in a lot of ways.”
Squash Dreamers is an organization dedicated to training refugee girls in Jordan squash, hoping to train them competitively in the field, to create more opportunities for them in the future. It also focuses on teaching the children English, as many squash schools tend to train students in English.
When I arrived at the training centre, I was met with the founder and executive director of Squash Dreamers Clayton Keir. Luckily, I was able to have an interview with him before the business of the training program started.
“The main goal is to open up a lot of life opportunities for the girls and I believe that squash is going to open a lot of life opportunities for them in a lot of ways,” he said.
Coming to Jordan for a consultancy job, he eventually started Squash Dreamers after working with another NGO, Reclaim Childhood, on their squash program. Reclaim Childhood adopted the same style of trying to help refugee girls by introducing them to sports.
“I originally founded the squash program for reclaim childhood which is a non-for-profit dedicated to training refugee girls in after-school sports, so I had really wanted to do something with squash here and my trainer back in DC, he’s Jordanian, and he used to train here, in this squash centre,” he said.
“And I remember playing in this tournament he was involved with for this urban intercity squash program in DC that we helped plan to raise money for, so when I came here, I thought we can do the same for refugees, so I connected with Reclaim Childhood and the Jordanian Squash Federation here and we started a program.”
Unfortunately, the Reclaim Childhood program didn’t provide intensive training programs for the girls, so Clayton decided to start one himself. It also helps that some of these girls were born-to-be squash prodigies, turns out.
“We met a couple times a week with 15 to 20 girls and then we discovered after a couple of months of this, that the girls were really talented that they needed intensive training,” Clay said.
“So, I founded a separate organization, Squash Dreamers, dedicated to training these girls and here they are getting intensive training, and we thought it would be good for them to learn English because it’s important in the squash world to be able to speak English.”
English lessons and the people
Being able to crash their English lessons, I was met with the vice president of Squash Dreamers, Rachel Lee, who at the time was teaching the girls English. As most squash schools taught in English, this was a plus for these girls.
Though when I met the girls, most of them couldn’t really speak English and were pretty shy (at least to me), they were incredibly excited to learn and were definitely improving.
The Squash Dreamers team felt this worked as an extra pedestal for the girls to be able to make it in the squash world, especially with dreams they would be able to make it to international tournaments.
Aside from Clay and Rachel though, the whole thing would not have been possible without the whole team, including their community liaison Reem Nyaz and squash coaches, who all seemed to have grown very close with the children.
They stated their support for the girls and wanted to see them travel and compete on the global stage.
Turning challenges into positivity
Having the girls making it big was the dream on all the Squash Dreamers teams’ minds, unfortunately, running a non-for-profit will always come with some setbacks. You guessed it, money.
“I think the biggest challenge is financial right now [and] tournaments, [they’re] really the biggest challenges,” he said.
“We need sponsorship to go to the tournaments and we also need to get Jordan to participate in the tournament.”
The organization mostly relies on fundraisers and donations, which they are constantly trying to keep up with. Despite the hardships and sometimes even using money from his own pocket though, Clay seemed optimistic about the organization, and so did everyone else involved.
He also believed the youth should not give up so easily for their goals, speaking from his experience with Squash Dreamers, Clay emphasized on the hardships of growing up and trying to live your life, adding some positive words for all the people out there.
“Be careful listening to other people, because when I started this program a number of people laughed at me or said no, they would think ‘why would you teach them this bougee white-person sport?’ and a lot of people thought it just wouldn’t work, but you know, stay persistent and I had my dream of how it was going to be and no it’s worked out really well,” he said.
“Being able to take a racket and hit a ball really hard against the wall. Seeing how happy they are after being able to do something successfully.”
Clay said he hoped to see the girls create a future out of squash or simply to just open-up doors for these young Syrian refugees. With more than 6.2 million people displaced in Syria due to the Syrian war, many have sought refuge in Jordan, struggling to meet economic needs and only a limited number of people have work permits; this issue has become a major concern for humanitarian organizations in Jordan.
“There is the possibility of becoming a squash player or instructor at some point, or getting into boarding school, college, there’s also the network they would be able to get from squash, travelling to different countries, I think we’ll be able to open up a lot of worlds to them that they didn’t know,” Clay said.
“And also, the psychological benefits of having something to do every day, something to look forward to and the confidence of being able to get good at something.”
When talking to the girls, they stated how much they enjoyed squash – which was pretty much all I could get out of them considering they were running away from the camera most of the time; but, their love for the game definitely showed when seeing them play.
Now, I did not know much about squash, but I could tell the difference between good and not so good players, and they were really good. So, no surprise the team had big hopes for these kids.
Clay wanted the girls to find a passion for the sport and turn it into something bigger and greater.
“Being able to take a racket and hit a ball really hard against the wall. Seeing how happy they are after being able to do something successfully, learning the values of hard work, building up a team, I think are all really great things for them,” he said.
“The hope is we build a long-term program that will be able to go on for years and hopefully a lot of people can come through and we will have a lot of opportunities through it.”
When I first had this interview, it was six months after they established themselves, which was well, a few years back. The team had come a long way since then. After catching up with Rachel again, I found out Squash Dreamers now have around 30 girls they work with and a whole new amazing local team to make their dreams a reality, including a new Executive Director, English Director and new coaches.
They were also looking to go digital by developing a virtual English program. By launching a campaign for people to donate used phones, they were hoping to give the phones and internet data to the families who need them and do virtual English lessons, something quite relevant in the midst of COVID-19.
On top of all that, I found out the girls also made it to the Hong Kong Junior Open and were looking to go to other tournaments in Egypt and the UK.
So, I guess the girls did manage to make the most of all those intense training.
Looks like Squash Dreamers is turning into the organization they were hoping to be, and we can only wait for what’s to come in the future.
Squash Dreamers is an organization that is dedicated to training refugee girls in Jordan to become competitive squash players. They also provide English language education with the hopes of enrolling them in schools with squash programs. They are based in Amman, Jordan with a focus on Syrian refugees, as Jordan has one of the highest Syrian refugee intakes globally. The organization consists of a number of coordinators to help make their mission a success, hoping to see these girls achieve a better future.
To show your support you can check out their website here or make a donation at the following link. If you would like to donate phones for their virtual English program, you can do so by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.