Soccer pitches are a place for healing in earthquake-torn Turkey

January 3, 2024 | By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

In February, when a horrific earthquake ravaged Turkey and Syria, hundreds of thousands of children watched their world crumble.

More than 50,000 people died in Turkey alone. Homes and schools were damaged or destroyed. Families moved to makeshift “container cities,” often far from friends.

For many children, the trauma left emotional scars, including nightmares and waking up at 4:17 a.m., the time when the first quake hit. The U.N. estimates more than 5.4 million children across the quake zone are at risk of developing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve spoken to many families who say, ‘I don’t recognize my own children,’” says Ceyda Yelkalan, the advocacy and communications manager of the global humanitarian organization Save the Children Türkiye.

What these children need to heal, Yelkalan says, is a place where they can focus on just being kids. That means creating new safe spaces where children can do something fun.

Something like playing soccer.

Through “Pitches of Hope” — a project conceived by Mastercard, joining forces with the UEFA Foundation and put into action by Save the Children — Yelkalan and her colleagues are building those spaces. Throughout southern Turkey, they are restoring soccer pitches that were destroyed during the earthquake and inviting kids to join soccer-related activities in the belief of the healing power of sport.

The earthquake's epicenter was about 23 miles northwest of the Gaziantep. Save the Children Türkiye, with support from Mastercard and UEFA, rebuilt the local soccer pitch damaged in the quake. (Photo courtesy Save the Children Türkiye)

The project is among a long list of efforts undertaken by Turkey and the international community to rebuild impacted cities and towns. Pitches of Hope is a specialized facet of this work because of its focus on helping children, bolstering their mental health and giving them a place to play.

“We believe in the healing power of football, so we have joined forces with our longtime partner the UEFA Champions League to give these children  a chance to be kids again,” says Yasemin Develioğlu, vice president for marketing and communications of Mastercard Eastern Europe. “Through the Pitches of Hope project, we aim to eliminate the lingering effects of the earthquake by establishing a fresh wellspring of joy and optimism in the lives of children.”

The project began its restoration efforts last June at a pitch in Hatay, where the roof had fallen onto the field after the quake. Locals who lost their homes used the facility as a temporary shelter for months. They set bonfires to keep warm, leaving the field — once used for pick-up and league games — pocked with holes and scorch marks.

Repairing the damage took some time. Workers had to clear nearby debris from fallen buildings. And sourcing new grass was a challenge, as was finding accommodations for people working on the project. “You can’t even get running water and electricity in Hatay,” Yelkalan says.

With the pitch restored, psychologist Mehmet Ali Akil, who is Save the Children’s child protection coordinator and a soccer enthusiast, and his colleagues started working with local children. The team developed a series of soccer-related games that encourage teamwork, enhance resilience, and bolster mental well-being. Programs like Pitches of Hope are much needed, he says, since after a trauma children can, and often do, become isolated from their family and peers.

“The football pitch is like a demonstration of the society,“ Akil says. “What children learn here, they then imitate in society.” So he developed activities focused on increasing communication, promoting respectful and kind behavior and learning to express one’s  feelings.

In the photo at top and above, a team led by a child psychologist developed soccer-related games to help boys and girls in Hatay heal from the mental trauma wrought by the earthquake. (Photo courtesy Save the Children Türkiye)

In October, Akil met with the program’s first group of ten children on the Hatay field for what became biweekly games. The goal is to work with 100 children in Hatay, where there’s a waiting list for the program. Already, Akil says he is seeing children support each other as they create strategies or pass the ball and work together as a team to score goals.

Pitches of Hope is also working in Gaziantep, about a hundred miles northeast of Hatay and home to thousands of refugees that fled fighting in Syria over the last decade. In that city, a sports complex was so damaged that the pitches had to be demolished before the field — used as a search and rescue hub immediately after the earthquake — could be repaired. The project, which included revamping the pitch’s electrical system, took two months. With the program up and running, a total of 100 neighborhood children will participate in the Pitches of Hope program in Gaziantep in the coming months.

One girl told the program coordinators that she hadn’t played soccer before because she thought it was a game for men. “Now she’s saying ‘I have more courage,’” Yelkalan says. “These children are learning life skills, the importance of equality and inclusion of every child. They’re getting away from the worries of daily life and making new bonds and friendships.”

Project leaders are eager to hand out the soccer uniforms and shoes that have been ordered as part of the program, and they’re in the process of identifying a third pitch for repair. They hope to restore several more this year and early next. These fields will be critical resources as the region continues to slowly recover from the disaster.

“Families really understand the value of this project,” Yelkalan says. “There are still over 9 million individuals in the areas that need support, many of which are children. This is going to be a long-term recovery process.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg, contributor