'I saw an opportunity to transform children's lives, but also spread the love of cricket'

Cricket hubs in refugee camps across Lebanon are helping empower boys and girls who have experienced untold hardships

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Amal approached the cone-marked crease at the non-facing end, bat in hand, watching as the bowler from the Beqaa team bounded in to unleash his delivery.

Abdullah, her teammate and facing batsman attempted a sweep shot, but pulled the ball to a fielder at square leg. To 16-year-old Amal’s surprise, he turned and began running towards her, calling for her to make the run.

Panicked, she set off, and raced across the AstroTurf pitch. She dived forward, sliding across the invisible line of the crease. Did she make it?

“Howzat!” A jubilant cry rang out from the fielders as the plastic stumps lay dismantled. The fielders celebrated, as the umpire pointed his finger to the sky to signal out.

Frustrated and disappointed, Amal picked herself up and made her way off the pitch. She was run-out before she got a chance to face a ball. Her eyes were brimming with tears as the wet sting of the graze on her elbow burnt through her shirt. She was welcomed in solidarity by her teammates adorned in donated purple and yellow kits.

Although Amal was unable to add to the score, her team, Alsama Shatila Hub 1, were on the way to mounting a sizeable target against arch rivals Alsama Bekaa Hub 1 in what is both teams’ biggest and most important match of the year.

“When Bekaa and Shatila come together it’s a big moment, with controversy from time to time,” says Richard Verity, who founded the first cricket hub in the Shatila refugee camp in 2018, and who was umpiring the match.

The commotion of the wicket was enough to distract the attention of passers-by, who are used to seeing these facilities in southern Beirut host 5-a-side football matches. The observers looked confused as they stopped to watch through the chain-link fence, while trying to make sense of an unfamiliar game.

Unlike other popular team sports such as football and basketball, cricket has never really broken ground in Lebanon, much less the Middle East, despite a British colonial legacy in the region. However, with all four pitches in el-Barajneh buzzing with children, there are signs that could change.

Players from Alsama Shatila Hub 1 pose with a bat signed by players from the England and Pakistani cricket teams. Matt Kynaston

Since 2020, Verity merged his cricket hub with a girl and young women’s empowerment centre, Alsama, run by Meike Ziervogel, his wife. In just a few years, Alsama has since expanded to run nine cricket hubs across refugee camps in Lebanon, engaging with around 360 children, more than 100 of whom had been taken by bus to compete in Beirut. This is despite restricting Covid measures.

The development and popularity of the hubs was enough to attract the funding and support of the MCC Foundation in the UK. Umpiring at the opposite end was former England women’s cricket captain and MCC president, Clare Connor, who travelled with MCC Foundation Dr Sarah Fane (largely credited with helping cricket develop in Afghanistan) to Lebanon to see the project in action.

“For cricket to have arrived here feels like an amazing opportunity. It teaches them all the things we love about it; success, failure and practice. For the better players being trained up as coaches and role models in their communities, it’s really lovely to see,” Connor told The National.

Connor had spent the week visiting the hubs across the country, and was clearly impressed with the project and how it empowered refugee boys and girls.

“To see the girls thriving like that — especially what they have experienced, and the hardships they endure now, is really empowering for me,” says Connor.

Lebanon is home to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Many arrived over the past decade from fighting, do not have legal residency and less than one per cent have a work permit. A lack of legal residency, according to the UNHCR, exposes refugees to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers theirs and their children’s access to basic services like education and healthcare.

A team celebrates during the match in southern Beirut. Matt Kynaston

What’s more, these communities have borne the brunt of Lebanon’s continued economic and financial collapse. Over the past two years, as the Lebanese currency has continued to lose value, prices have skyrocketed, making affording even most basic goods almost an impossibility for refugee families.

As a result, most Syrian families find themselves destitute and resorting to negative coping strategies to survive, such as begging, borrowing money and not sending their children to school.

Forced to give up her education in Syria when her family fled ISIS three years ago, Alsama offered a rare opportunity for Amal to continue her studies, as well as grow and develop.

Amal, who had shrugged off the disappointment from the match, has taken inspiration from her favourite player, Jofra Archer. She has developed a confidence which she says has given her strength and resilience.

“Before, when someone bowled at me, I was so nervous I would always cry. I am much better now.” Amal says, who is now trained as a coaching assistant.

“When I play cricket I feel like I can get all the negative energy out,” a sentiment that was echoed by her classmates that spoke to The National.

The Alsama Institute in Shatila, located in the maze of narrow bare concrete alleys of the infamous Palestinian refugee camp, provides core subjects such as maths, Arabic, history and English to Brevet (GCSE equivalent) level, long denied to refugees by state institutions.

A bowler from Alsama Shatila in action. Matt Kynaston

When it comes to cricket, the Alsama students get around nine hours per week training and coaching, something Ziervogel believes is essential to their personal development.

“You can't just give them maths, Arabic and English without any development skills, critical thinking or problem solving skills. Where they really learn that is on the cricket pitch,” says Ziervogel.

Dr Fane, agrees. “Cricket, almost more than any other sport, teaches so much.,” she said. “It gives the children confidence, they have to work together as a team, but also have to drive as an individual.”

But can cricket take off in the Middle East?

“When I was working Afghanistan, I saw what cricket was doing for a country devastated by war. Refugee communities are the forgotten communities, they face so much hardship, but I have also seen how Afghans have taken cricket all over the world. I saw this happening in Lebanon, I saw an opportunity to transform lives for children, but also spread the love of cricket.”

Time will tell, but if it develops it is likely to come from refugees’ playgrounds and grass-roots migrant communities. Ziervogel has ambitions to expand Alsama, opening up new institutes and hubs in Lebanon as well as Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

With the support of the MCC Foundation, the seeds are being sowed that may well see a Lebanese or Syrian cricket league taking shape within the coming years.

Cricketers from different Alsama cricket hubs watch the action in Beirut. Matt Kynaston
Updated: March 12, 2022, 5:53 AM
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