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Shoeless GG plays soccer with Syrian refugees at largest camp in Jordan

When Governor General David Johnston noticed the young Syrian boys on the soccer pitch were barefoot, he took off his own shoes before kicking around the ball for a few minutes. 

The Governor General stood in goal, high-fiving the boys after one of them got a shot past him. It was the warmest moment during the two-hour visit Johnston paid on Saturday to the Zaatari refugee camp, in northern Jordan about 20 kilometres from the Syrian border.

The refugees of Syria’s long war were Johnston’s focus on the second day of the first-ever state visit by a governor general to the Middle East.

Shoeless GG plays soccer with Syrian refugees in Jordan0:29

“I’m so impressed with the resilience of these people living through these conditions and not knowing what their future is from week to week to week,” Johnston told CBC News. “Especially the children and one’s sense of their future and what can one do to make that future a brighter one.”

Johnston and his wife, Sharon, met Syrian refugees, including young artists who have created images of what Syria looked like before the civil war began in March 2011. At least 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

“Seeing is believing. It touches the heart and of course what we hope with the Canadian effort here is to provide hope,” Johnston said. 

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Mohammed el Akrad, a champion wrestler in Syria, met the Governor General at the Zaatari camp, where he instructs young refugees in physical fitness. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The Governor General was greeted with warm smiles and waves from refugees, many of whom have lived in the Zaatari camp since it opened more than four years ago. About 79,000 Syrians live in the camp, according to the United Nation’s refugee agency.

Johnston also met with Jordanian municipal leaders, to discuss the challenges faced by the communities who have hosted large number of refugees.

The burden on Jordan

“Since World War II they’ve had wave upon wave upon wave of immigrants — refugees — coming into this country and still have found a way of accepting them and making conditions as good as they possibly can,” Johnston said

The United Nations says more than 500,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan, with the vast majority living in urban centres. The cash-strapped country has struggled to cope with the influx. Water supplies, already limited, are being depleted and schools are overflowing with students. 

Johnston has welcomed some of the 31,000 Syrian refugees who have been resettled to Canada. But Sunday’s visit to the Zaatari camp gave him first-hand exposure to people who fled the conflict but wish to remain near their homes so they can return when the war ends.

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Some of the Syrians Johnston met are hopeful that they will end up in Canada.

Mohammed el Akrad, a champion wrestler in Syria, now teaches physical fitness to young Syrians at the camp.

Trying to keep kids healthy, physically and mentally

“The goal physically is to create a good body. But for the mind, the goal is to let these kids release negative feelings,” Akrad said. “We want to plant hope in these kids, that one day when the situation in Syria gets better, that the children can be champions.”

Akrad hopes to bring his pregnant wife, young boy and his mother and father to Canada. Their applications have been vetted by Canadian officials and the family is now waiting for a phone call.

Maisoon Dairy said she would love the opportunity to resettle to Canada, to continue her studies to become a lawyer.

She’s watched many world leaders and dignitaries in their motorcades drive down the dusty streets of the Zaatari camp. She caught a brief glimpse of the Queen of Belgium last week.

Like many of the refugees, she doesn’t always know exactly who the VIPs are, but she welcomes them nonetheless.  

“I believe they come here because they are interested in refugee issues and the humanitarian situation that we face,” Dairy said. “I feel happy when people come here from the outside and they experience our tragedy.”

David Johnston on Middle East security, refugee resettlement, and development issues9:55