A football team of Arab and Kurdish players.

How football is helping to heal tensions in Iraq

In Northern Iraq, a football tournament organised by the Danish Refugee Council is helping to repair communities left fractured after decades of conflict.


In Iraq, decades of conflict have left a diverse population fractured and divided. The war against ISIL displaced almost 15 per cent of Iraq's population, over 6 million people, who fled their homes in search of safety.

Now, more than two years since the end of the conflict, displaced families are beginning to return home. However, many of those returning continue to face challenges as they struggle to rebuild their lives in communities shattered by the effects of years of extremism and sectarian violence.

Forced to flee

Hassan and Muhammad are two young Kurdish men from neighbouring villages in Zummar sub-district, in northern Iraq. Zummar is a rural, mixed-ethnicity, Sunni Arab and Kurd area, to which historically both the Kurdish and Iraqi government lay claim. In August 2014 ISIL took control of the area, forcing many residents to flee. 21-year-old Hassan was one of those forced to leave:

"I was 15 years old when ISIL came to our village. They killed my father and we were forced to leave our home to find safety. We moved to the Kurdistan region and rented a house there for six months. It was a difficult time, sometimes we didn't have enough to eat, and I missed my father and my friends from the village. While were displaced, I thought about my home; I had happy memories of being with my friends, playing football together."

Community tensions

After the area was retaken from ISIL towards the end of 2014, displaced families began to return home. However, those coming back faced continuing challenges; many houses and business were damaged or destroyed during the conflict, leading to contested or disrupted land ownership. Existing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the area were exacerbated due to a lack of access to housing and livelihood opportunities.

Thanks to funding from Danida, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have been working to strengthen the community in Zummar, by bringing together young Arab and Kurdish men together to play as a team in a football tournament. Initially, Muhammad, 31, was hesitant about the idea:

"Initially, I had no desire to participate in the tournament; I didn't think it would succeed. There have always been problems between Arabs and Kurds in Zummar, and I thought that there would be problems again if we played together in team. I did not expect any kind of respect or affection between us. I didn't think that the Arabs would even come and play with a mixed team.”

One team, together

Young men are often at the "front line" of social tension; involved in verbal or physical altercations that may arise from underlying community divides. Such incidents are exacerbated by a lack of job opportunities and resulting frustrations, susceptibility to political actors' messaging, and use of social media as a catalyst for verbal disputes.

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To start a dialogue between the two groups of young men, DRC facilitated discussions on social cohesion between a mixed group of Arab and Kurdish football players. Six local coaches were also recruited, based on their reputation for encouraging mixing and taking part in social activism, to lead the teams. The coaches were instrumental in ensuring fair play during the event and in building their players into successful teams, as Hassan explains:

"Our coach was called Walid, he is an Arab and we loved him very much. At the end of the match, he hugged and praised me in front of everyone and said 'we need you to come and play in the next match!'. After that, whenever he saw me in the street, he greeted me."

"My favourite moment in this tournament was when our defender scored the goal against the opposite side – it was an amazing goal! When we were on the field, everyone on my team was calling my name. I felt that we were one team; they loved me a lot, and I loved them. When I first met with DRC staff, I told them that I don't like Arabs, they are not good people, but when I saw the Arabs playing together with us in the matches, I realised that Kurd and Arab, we are all the same."

A step forward on the road to peace

In an area like Zummar, where years of conflict, displacement and lack of opportunity have exacerbated existing deep-rooted tensions and shattered the community, the path to building social cohesion can be long and challenging. But as the football teams, Arabs and Kurds, celebrate the end of the tournament together, Muhammad shares a story of unexpected friendship which perhaps provides some hope for the future of the community:

"The best thing about this tournament was getting to know people from different regions. In the beginning, I did not know any of the players, as they were from different places, but through the tournament, I got to know them, and now I have friends in many different places. Now there is a friendship between us."

Before, we would never greet each other in the street, but after the tournament, whenever we see each other, we always say hello and we talk on the phone. Through the tournament, I became friends with Saif, who is an Arab. Now, whenever there is another football game with an Arab team, Saif will call me and we'll go and play together."