By Yan Zhao
As three young Syrian squash players enthusiastically pound the courts in Hong Kong they are clearly enjoying their first ever international tournament.
The girls, aged between 11 and 13, are part of a new team called Squash Dreamers, made up of displaced Syrian youngsters who were forced to flee their war-torn homeland.
Even after their matches in the five-day Hong Kong junior tournament are over, they head back to the practice courts for more.
“It’s not that important whether I win or not, I just like playing games,” 13-year-old Raghda Husryeh told AFP, saying she hoped to become a squash coach in the future.
The girls are among more than 330,000 Syrian children estimated by the UN to have fled across the border to neighbouring Jordan since conflict broke out in 2011.
Husryeh and her family escaped the bombs and bullets in their battered hometown of Homs five years ago, before gradually making their way to safety abroad.
Squash Dreamers, a United States NGO based in Jordan, set up the 15-strong team of displaced girls from Syria over the past two years.
On the team’s debut international tournament in Hong Kong, three of the girls will take on teams from around the region, including Taiwan and Malaysia, as part of the event which features an official competition plus friendlies.
Although they have been knocked out of the official contest, they are taking the next few days of friendly matches seriously.
Squash has never been mainstream in Syria, but is hugely popular in some parts of the Middle East, most prominently Egypt, and major tournaments are hosted in places like Qatar.
Team coach Reem Niaz, herself a refugee from Damascus, said the game was playing a role in helping the young women rebuild their lives.
“The sport is helping them a lot as refugees, because it’s not forbidden to them or inaccessible to them. They can just be like anybody else and play,” Niaz told AFP.
Playing their first tournament abroad is also a big step.
“[There’s] a sense of national pride. The team feel like they are part of the world,” said Niaz, adding that it helped them retain a connection with their home country.
The girls have also grown in confidence in the past two years says Rachel Lee, vice president of the NGO.
“They started to realise their own strength. That’s the biggest thing that they’ve been developing – physical strength and mental strength,” she said.