When Will Smith arrived in Lebanon his transport didn’t show up, his translator couldn’t translate and his accommodation – that’s a story for a different day.
But, what followed were some of the most inspirational and terrifying days of his life.
The director of JCP Empowering Youth – a small group of dedicated Tasmanian leaders working to improve the lives of young people through school and community-based seminars and programs – set a goal to help the most at-risk children in the world play soccer.
To do this, Mr Smith would travel to red zones on the Lebanese border to work with Syrian refugees. He would work with Lebanese locals to gain their respect, to allow refugees at least an hour a week to play soccer.
The children were not allowed to be seen playing sport as they’re considered second-class citizens, Mr Smith said.
Most of the refugee settlements are illegal. The small huts are built on mostly privately-owned land.
“When the Syrians crossed the border about seven years ago, the Lebanese were of the understanding that the war would only last a couple of months. It’s now been seven years and they’ve outstayed their welcome,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s conflict all the time between them. The Syrians are stuck because they can’t cross back over the border because there is a war and there are people dying there every day. They can’t go into Lebanon because they’re not allowed. So they’re stuck in this strip of limbo.
“The Lebanese won’t let them attend any education facilities. They won’t let them have any luxuries of life. They’re treated like second-class citizens, they’re not allowed to play sport in the street. The kids are not allowed to loiter. The kids can only go to the shop and straight back. If you’re a Syrian standing in the street you’re almost spat on.”
Mr Smith said if Syrians were seen walking the streets with a soccer ball it’s consider a luxury. His biggest role was to try and change that mindset.
When asked how the trip as a whole went, “intense” was the only world he could muster.
With so many logistical things going wrong in the first few hours, Mr Smith said as a result he ended up being able to achieve a lot more.
He spent most of his time walking into areas. People would then flood him and ask what he was doing.
“I went into different refugee settlements and villages and announced myself,” he said.
“I had two interpreters. The first one didn’t last too long, he was getting me into conflicts with people and wasn’t really getting the message across well. The second interpreter is a guy that I will be friends with for life. He was amazing. He was a man that spent 18 years in America so he spoke really good English and Arabic.”
The duo would look at a map and then travel to the areas.
“I’d say this is who I am, I’ve got all this gear and I want to create a team. It took about a day in each area to overcome and convince the local leaders to let the Syrians play,” he said.
“We had to pay-off people and organise grounds that were away from the public areas so people weren’t offended by the Syrians playing, and in areas where the army and other rebel groups would not see what we were doing.”
Children just used to appear at the ground, some often travelling hours to get there just to play.
“We’d fit them out with all the donated shoes, socks and shirts and then we’d just play. Every training was a two-hour session. We held training every day for two weeks and the best teams played in the championships at the end,” he said.
Transporting the children around was one of the most enjoyable parts of Mr Smith’s trip.
“At times we’d have 20 kids in the back of a van and there would be a 12-year-old driving and I’d be sitting in the back thinking ‘what the hell is going on’,” he said.
Refugees all along the border took part, with Mr Smith even travelling into an area known for Islamic State recruitment.
“A road has only been available to access it for the last seven years. There is a settlement up there of about four or five thousand people. It’s one of the most isolated Muslim communities in the world,” he said.
“There are a mixture of Lebanese and Syrians that live in the area and we were told not to go into that area. They said ‘do not go up there’. Westerners don’t go up there and it’s not somewhere that is safe. It’s just stupid to go up there.
“But our concept was that there are Syrian refugees there and we wanted to work with the most at-risk youth in the world and that leads us to going into that area. The fact that IS are there means no other organisation works in the area, so if we put that same hat on and said ‘well JCP are not going there because IS is there’ then we tarnish it with the same brush.”
The team created in the area was the most inspiring team of them all, Mr Smith said.
“I hired a security guy for $20 to take me up there. It was an epic fail. We walked passed guys with AK-47s and machine guns, and my guy had a .22 riffle,” he said.
“So if a small bird attacked us we were fine, but if any of the guys wanted to turn on us, which at times I thought they were going to, we were in trouble.”
The tour came to an end when Mr Smith was in a community and a gun fight broke out just a street away. He was left outside by himself as he had not been welcomed inside yet.
Other times he witnessed children get beaten in the street because they were playing, and he sat in a refugee tent for four hours while the army stormed the camp. He wished every single day that he could go home.
“But I’d finish every day with the kids playing soccer and it would be so empowering because we were achieving so much.”
One of the goals was to not just let the children play soccer once and leave. Mr Smith wanted a sustainable solution which would allow them to continue to play soccer.
“I created two men’s teams as well. I was approached by a guy named Basil. He was a semi-professional soccer player in Syria and he would travel to Europe and play for the national team. When the war happened he had to flee and he became a refugee and was no longer allowed to play,” Mr Smith said.
“The group that he played with all fled and are now living in the same sort of area, so they had started this sort of underground competition where they would propose to Lebanese teams and say ‘we’ve got a bit of a team here if you need a bit of a practice match or want to play against someone – you can do that against us’. The opportunity to play against professionals for a Lebanese team was brilliant in their eyes.”
Basil’s family have paid off a Lebanese university to allow him to study. He has aims to become an international coach.
“JCP, as a company, is now providing sponsorship for him to finish the rest of his education … and in return for our personal sponsorship he is going to be coaching groups of kids and running clinics which is the sustainable outcome we were looking for. He’s been able to get a group of kids into a competition which has just run and they won the tournament,” Mr Smith said.
“We’re sponsoring that underground team with some tops. So they’re going to be a JCP unofficial underground Syrian soccer team. He has the opportunity to inspire other Syrian refugees and say ‘I’ve been through the same thing and this is what I’ve achieved’. That in itself you can’t put a price on. That is the self-sustaining project we’ve got.”
Mr Smith bought two things while in the country: a whistle and some trophies. The whistle is the only physical memento he has.
The biggest difference he noticed was a change in perception.
“It was challenging Lebanese people against the values and the belief systems that they had created. It was outlaying to them that the treatment of these refugees is wrong. And some areas it wasn’t successful. But other areas we did. That’s the difference,” he said.