By Josué Villalón
Al-Yarmouk Youth Sport Center: helping to strengthen faith and hope through sport in Aleppo
The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is supporting a project for the rebuilding of a multipurpose sports centre for the Armenian Christian community
“The area of East Aleppo has not attracted so much media attention as other areas, but nonetheless people here have also suffered greatly from the war”, says Kevork Mavian, a local businessman of Armenian origin. We meet him in the suburb of Al-Zizieh, a mainly Christian area very close to the historic centre of Aleppo. The Christian community has suffered particularly and continues to suffer the consequences of the war. Their numbers have shrunk from around 150,000 to barely 35,000 today as a result of the violence, lack of hope and the persecution by jihadist groups.
The streets are peppered with potholes and other visible scars in the tarmac and the pavements from the bombs which fell randomly over more than four years of violence and combat in this northern Syrian city. Before the war Aleppo was Syria’s largest city and also the industrial centre of the country.
When we arrive at the Al-Yarmouk Youth Sport Center, in Al-Zizieh, the devastation is still more visible. The basketball and football pitch is littered with chunks of twisted steel, and the roof has disappeared. “A bomb fell, leaving the the centre completely unusable. We had to clear away the rubble, now we are trying to rebuild the structure, so that we can later replace the roof”, says Mavian, who is now in charge of the centre. The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has put up 30,000 Euros so that work can begin as soon as possible.
The centre takes its name from the Al-Yarmouk Sports Club, a sports club that covers various different sports, such as basketball, football and athletics. The club was founded by a group of Turkish Armenian exiles who survived the ethnic and religious genocide of the Armenian community by the Young Turks in 1915. After making their new home in Aleppo, the Armenian community engaged in a great work of social outreach and apostolate through sport.
Ever since then this sporting centre has been a vitally important point of reference, not only for the Armenian Christians but also for the other Christian communities, regardless of rite. It is more or less the only social centre and meeting place for them in the city and consequently especially important for the children and young people and a place where they can forget for a moment the trauma of the war. The work is still not finished, but at least they have been able to clear the floor and replace the baskets, which were crushed when the bomb fell. And the young people from the area have not been slow in coming back to make use of the centre, the best possible therapy to counter the emptiness and enforced immobility of the recent years. And at the same time a source of great relief for their parents, who released know their children are in safe hands and in an atmosphere shaped by Christian values and human formation.
Before the war around 800 boys and girls used to come here to play indoor football, basketball and take part in the other youth activities such as the Scouts groups. For Kevork Mavian, who runs the centre, ACN’s support to reopen the facility is of vital importance. “To be able to continue with these sports-based activities in complete security is a source of joy and new hope for us all, and an encouragement in our faith. The Armenians were the first people to embrace Christianity officially, even before the Roman Empire. The Christian faith is part of our identity”, he assures us. The sports centre also includes a restaurant area, where Christian families can come to celebrate birthdays, baptisms, First Holy Communions and weddings.
Rebuilding the Al-Yarmouk Centre is a way of salvaging part of the history of the Christian influence within the country. The club was founded in 1925 and is the second oldest sports club in the country. Currently its football team plays in the second division in Syria, but in the past they won many titles and championships. Before the Second World War the club was called Homenetmen Aleppo, which means “Rise and raise”, a name by which it is still remembered and which gave rise to other sporting clubs and scout movements in America and throughout the Armenian diaspora.
The restoration of this centre is a source of new hope and courage to many Christian families here, hope that they do have a future here in Syria. “This project is giving us another perspective on life, especially for the young people in this area where the majority of the Armenian minority live. It helps those suffering psychological problems and trauma due to the years of war, and it also helps families to be able to live a more normal life and so contemplate remaining in Syria”, Kevork Mavian tells us. And he concludes by expressing his thanks for the aid given by ACN. “I want to thank you for all you are doing for us, especially for our young people who have suffered so much from the war, and for having given us a little hope. You continue to be our hope and a source of light for our community here in Aleppo.”