x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Expatriates in Qatar ask: where can our children go to play?

Many complain of a lack of facilities and a hostile reception from Qatari nationals when ball games are played in parks.

Boys look on as huge light balloons carrying flags of the participating nations in this year’s Asian Cup in Qatar before the start of this month’s tournament.
Boys look on as huge light balloons carrying flags of the participating nations in this year’s Asian Cup in Qatar before the start of this month’s tournament.

The facade of an old, fort-like structure looms over the road that leads from Doha to Al Rayyan Stadium. In the shadow of its dusty, brown walls, a group of men and boys share a patch of green to play football.

It is a surprising sight after two weeks amid the glitzy towers and cacophony of the bustling city. For although Qatar is hosting the Asian Cup - and in 11 years, the World Cup - the city is remarkably void of people playing the "Beautiful Game".

"There are not many places where you can get together and play some football," Ashraf Hakim, a Jordanian expatriate, said. "So this is a good place, a bit far from the city and we do not disturb anyone."

Hakim comes to this place every weekend with his friends, all Arab expatriates, to indulge in their favourite pastime. It is not a big ground, probably half the size of a football pitch, but two matches are being played simultaneously.

There are bigger parks around Qatar; the Al Bida Park, overlooking the sea, is a favourite of the residents, and the Aspire Park is a huge space of tranquillity.

Sports, however, is not usually welcome at these places.

"It is really difficult for children," Arvind Nag, an Indian expatriate, said. "There are hardly any places where they can go to play sports. The other day, we went to Al Bida Park and I was playing football with my eight-year-old son when the ball went into a local family group sitting close to us.

"They got very upset and threatened to call the police. They eventually returned the ball to us, but only after puncturing it with a knife. It's the same at all the other parks. You cannot play there because it is for families."

There are plenty of other attractions for children around Doha, but they usually come with a heavy price tag. Those who cannot afford it end up visiting the malls.

"I keep wondering where to take my children at the weekends," N Rakesh, also from India, said. "And almost every week, it's the malls. There are not many sports activities for expatriate children.

"Yes, they have grounds at the schools, but outside the schools there are few places they can go to. What do the children do on weekends or during vacations?"

Mary Clarke, an Australian from Perth, usually faces a similar dilemma, but for the moment her two sons are making use of the fan zones at the Asian Cup venues.

"I am really enjoying this," said Danny, 11 and a big fan of Harry Kewell and the Australia team. "It's great fun getting into the stadium and screaming as loud as we can for our team."

Once the Asian Cup is over, though, Clarke said it will be back to the malls or the pool at their compound villa for the children. Or back to the couch in front of the television or at the computer table.

A recent study of expatriates working in 14 nations, conducted for HSBC Bank, ranked Qatar 13th in the health and well-being category, with only the United Kingdom performing worse. In the integration category, Qatar finished last.

According to the report, 39 per cent of the expatriate parents surveyed in Qatar said their children were playing more video games than they did back home; 61 per cent also complained their children were spending more time on the internet since relocating.

"For the expatriate children, under 14 years of age, their parents send them to music or dance schools, to learn the piano or such other things," N Ganesh said. "There are not many other options. The older children, they usually go to the parking lots outside the stadiums on weekends and play cricket or football."

Even that option, however, has been taken away during the Asian Cup.

"We used to play cricket in the parking lot of the Al Sadd stadium, but now that has been closed off because of the Asian Cup," Anand Ranjan, a college student, said.

"For football, we would go to the Aspire Zone. It is the best place with all the facilities, but because of the Asian Cup, we cannot."

Ravi Kumar, a teacher, insists there are many places open for expatriate children to play football or any other sport, but they shy away from using them.

"There are enough facilities around, but generally people are unaware or they are too lazy to take advantage of them," he said. "All the schools have their grounds and all the clubs are open for expatriates to use their facilities. So I don't think this is a problem.

"Many of these clubs also try to promote football in Qatar by holding regular football matches at schools and colleges levels. The problem, I believe, is more of integration.

"I have been living here for 18 years and I have been invited by just one Qatari to his house and only one Qatari has ever come to my house. I have invited many.

"Because of this, the expatriates stay away from these facilities, thinking that they are exclusively for the use of locals."

However, Jassim al Rumaihi, the general secretary of Al Sadd, insists they have been doing everything to encourage expatriates to use facilities at different clubs.

"The clubs here have a very good relationship with the schools and the children are welcome to use our facilities," he said. "At my club, we have a good relationship with the American schools, the Indian schools and all the other schools here in Qatar.

"They are allowed to come and play friendly matches with the youth team. We are trying to make Doha the capital of sports. This doesn't mean sports belongs only to Qataris here. All expatriates are allowed to come and use our facilities. We will be very glad [if they do].

"We get an average of around 4,000 spectators at the stadiums in our league matches. We would like to see 10,000, with the expatriates coming to support the clubs. So we welcome the expatriate community to join us.

"We are trying to attract them. This is one of the plans for the future. We want more non-Qataris to get involved, especially the children because, when the 2022 World Cup comes around, these children will be the ones who will be involved in the tournament."