The game quickly became popular among Syrian and Palestinian refugee children, as it lifts their morale and does not discriminate along ethnic or gender lines.

The entrance to Shatila Refugee Camp is overwhelmed with tangled electrical wires that hang every which way, and dozens of green Hamas flags, zigzagging above the heads of crowds who push through the narrow streets sandwiched between dilapidated buildings that have likely seen much better days since the camp was established in 1949 in southern Beirut.

It is now one of the most densely populated areas in all of Lebanon. 

Through the last alley comes a small clearing, where half a dozen old cars sit atop a layer of candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and empty soda cans. 

Above the clearing, there’s an outbreak of laughter from a surrounding building. It’s coming from the Al Sama Project offices, where four veiled Syrian girls are waiting excitedly to talk about how their lives have been changed by the work of the NGO. 

Or, more specifically, how their lives have been changed by the game of cricket. 

Inside the offices, 15-year-old Maram Al Khodr, a cricketer and a student of the organisation, is the first to share her enthusiasm. 

“I’m crazy about cricket!” she exclaims. She says she wants to be a famous cricketer, just like her idol, Australian Mitchell Starc. 

A few feet away, Wissal Al Jaber, 14, emphatically agrees with Al Khodr in wanting a future in cricket, though there’s tension over Al Khodr’s favourite cricketer. Al Jaber prefers Jofra Archer, of the Rajasthan Royals. 

“He is so good at bowling,” she says, smiling from ear to ear. 

For many children in Lebanon's Shatila refugee camp, cricket offer hope and inspires them to dream big.
For many children in Lebanon's Shatila refugee camp, cricket offer hope and inspires them to dream big. (Priyanka Navani / TRTWorld)

Filling in the education gaps

Al Khodr, Al Jaber, and more than 200 other Shatila youth have been learning cricket from the Al Sama Project (Sama means ‘sky’ in Arabic) for the last three years. Beyond cricket, the organisation also provides English, Arabic, Maths, yoga, and life skills lessons, which founder Meike Ziervogel says feed quite well into cricketing skills. 

“Cricket is very strategic. You have to have your thinking cap on. It helps tremendously with focus, concentration,” she says. 

“The kids who are good at cricket are great at school.” 

Ziervogel and her cricket-loving husband brought the game to Lebanon in 2018 in the form of a week-long camp. At first, hardly anyone showed up. But, as news travelled around the camp, children, mostly ranging between 10 and 16, began coming in groups. This, Ziervogel says, was a testament to cricket’s highly technical and strategic nature, something the kids, many of whom had been out of school for years, adored. 

While Shatila was built as and continues to be known as a Palestinian refugee camp, the area is also popular for Syrian refugees, who number about 1.5 million in Lebanon. The migration to Shatila began during the Syrian war, but has also been exacerbated by the current economic crisis in Lebanon, which has seen the local currency lose over 90 percent of its value and sent millions of Lebanese into abject poverty. According to World Vision, 99 percent of Syrian households in Lebanon are now living in extreme poverty. In Shatila, the prices of rent and goods are much cheaper than surrounding areas of Beirut, making it increasingly attractive to people outside the traditional Palestinian demographic. 

That hasn’t been without its problems, though, and according to Al Sama Director Kadria Hussein, a Syrian national who came to Lebanon in 2012, the organisation is not without the sectarian tensions that many blame as a primary reason behind Lebanon’s current crisis, nor the anti-Syrian sentiment that has stemmed from those tensions. 

Since 2019, there has been a sharp rise in hate crimes, and arson attacks towards Syrians, committed largely under the false narrative that Syrians are stealing Lebanese jobs or fairing better in the crisis because of aid money. 

“We are not better off,” says Hussein, who says the criticism from within the camp that Al Sama helps Syrian children whilst Palestinian aid is growingly sparse, is hard to take. While it’s true that most of Al Sama students and cricketers are Syrian, this is not due to restrictive admissions policies.  The group does have a handful of Palestinian and Lebanese children in the mix, she says. Instead, the current demographic of students is due to demand: Syrian children are often without necessary documents, making it difficult for them to enter even schools outside the Lebanese public system, which they are mostly locked out of. 

Changing gender dynamics

But for Ziervogel, helping to fill the void in Syrian education and aid was not the only reason cricket quickly became popular inside Shatila.

“What they loved is that it’s for girls and boys. It’s not contact,” she says. 

It’s a claim that the children inside the camp, both girls and boys, are quick to back up. 

“Before I started at Al Sama, my family taught me not to play with boys, and they didn’t allow me to wear shorts,” says Al Khodr. 

“I can’t blame them. That’s what they were taught. But cricket gave both me and my parents' awareness.” 

The other girls sitting around her, including Al Jaber, 16-year-old Amal Al Kala and 13-year-old Afrah Al Abdullah, echo her sentiments. Cricket gave them confidence, or allowed them to overcome chronic shyness, and strengthened their communication skills. The girls, like many of their fellow students, come from especially conservative families, where, pre-cricket, their only aspiration was to marry young and be a mother. 

Their goals are now much more dynamic, but not all their families have been supportive of the change. 

Al Abdullah still faces domestic abuse when she attempts to break out of her family’s expectation of her, and says she’s slapped every time she says she prefers not to raise a family. Her situation was worsened by the arrival of her grandfather from Syria in December, who forbade her from going outside the house, or wearing a top that did not drape to her ankles. The rules were lifted once her grandfather left, but it was still a reminder of just how precarious her newfound freedom is. 

However, according to the girls, family dynamics are slowly changing, due, in part, to the fact that the boys who train with Al Sama also undergo a mindset shift. 

“My brother changed his mind [on me playing cricket]. He used to stand with my father, but he doesn’t anymore,” says Al Abdullah. 

For Ziervogel, the proof of the pudding is in the eating when it comes to parental support. 

“They see the development of the children. Their lives - not just on the cricket pitch - have improved drastically. Their school, their behaviour. The parents can see the development. So, in general, we have very supportive parents,” she says. 

“We have fathers and mothers turning up to games. Mothers in particular really cheer on their girls.” 

The Al Sama offices are decorated with posters of the Rajasthan Royals featuring its ace player Virat Kohli. Its the favorite team of many students.
The Al Sama offices are decorated with posters of the Rajasthan Royals featuring its ace player Virat Kohli. Its the favorite team of many students. (TRTWorld)

Looking ahead 

Despite the organisation’s obvious success thus far, both cricketers and Ziervogel say they’re just getting started. 

The organisation currently operates in Shatila, neighbouring camp Burj al Barajneh; the Bekaa Valley, and has recently set up a partnership with a high school in the affluent Beirut suburb of Brummana, through which particularly gifted students in Shatila can find scholarships to Brummana High School in the hope of securing a better educational future. 

The organisation has also offered cricket coaching to the high school, in the hopes that games between mostly-Lebanese and mostly-Syrian teams might allow for better relations between the two groups. 

“The world will only have a future if we all play together,” Ziervogel says, highlighting that she hopes to continue building cricket hubs across the region, with an ultimate goal of seeing a Lebanese-Syrian-Palestinian national team. 

As the organisation has only been offering cricket for a little over three years, none of the Al Sama students have gone professional — yet. 

But Ziervogel says they are well on their way, and the players aren’t ones to disagree. 

“Because of cricket, I feel I’m a strong girl, and I know I can do anything,” Al Jaber exclaims. 

Source: TRT World