NEA KAVALA, Greece — Refugees in Greece have had a field day.

Soccer players and fans from Syria and Iraq got a break from their stressful lives in migrant camps to play a match organized by Greece’s state migration agency, launching a tournament that will include local amateur teams.

The first game Friday was slow-paced, with white lines on the pitch unfinished. Spectators were seated on grass or on the terrace of a half-built home. There was dancing and drums at halftime, and children on the sidelines who shrieked at every turn of the game.

After 90 minutes, the score was 1-1 for Hersos and Nea Kavala — teams that took their names from refugee camps near Greece’s northern border.

Both players and fans appreciated the outing, describing it as a small first step toward a normal life for those who escaped war and were left stranded on their journey into Western Europe.

“This (helps us) forget the conditions inside the camp … In the camp you are under pressure. The game helps us make a little bit (of) fun with our friends,” Sherran Abdiy, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria and the goalkeeper for Nea Kavala team.

The 21-year-old pharmacology student’s family home was destroyed in the civil war, and he traveled to Turkey and then Greece with his mother and 15-year-old brother. He hopes to make it to Switzerland and continue his studies.

Now, however, he spends his days in a camp hastily set up by the Greek army and where authorities struggle to provide basic facilities.

There are 60,000 people in Greece like him, halted on the trip to Europe after countries further north closed their borders in fear of being flooded with refugees. Most of the stranded have seen little of their host country, since the migrant camps are generally located outside Greek towns.

European Union countries have been reluctant so far to meet their commitments to relocate refugees from fellow EU nations Greece and Italy, the two countries facing the brunt of the continent’s migration crisis.

Fahed Al Haboun, a 22-year-old from Aleppo, turned up Friday to cheer for Hersos. His 5-month-old daughter was born in Greece.

“I’m glad to see this happening,” he said, speaking in broken English, standing at the side of the pitch still strewn with weeds. “I don’t have nothing to do (at the camp). I don’t have to do anything, just waiting for my interview (for relocation) all the time.”

This week, the Greek government launched a program to integrate refugee children into the state school system, starting with 1,500 kids bused out of camps to 19 schools. The program is set to expand to 20,000 children.

The reaction so far has been mixed. Greek parents at one school staged protests, voicing health concerns, while at another they gathered outside to applaud the refugees as they arrived.

Giorgos Perperidis, the government coordinator at the refugee camps of Hersos and Nea Kavala, organized Friday’s game, which included getting uniforms donated by topflight Greek soccer team PAOK: Light blue for Hersos, black-and-white stripes for Nea Kavala.

“People at the camps have to be given something to do, and they chose sport,” he said. “There will be more games with local clubs in the area and we already have the next match lined up.”

He said “it’s not always easy to get things done, but we do what we can.”

“There’s no rivalry here. Everyone was really excited about today’s game. It’s great to watch. These are good moments,” he said.


Derek Gatopoulos and Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed. Follow Kantouris at