There can be few more unlikely places to discover a female fast bowler than the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. The camp was set up in 1948 as a tent village for 3,000 Palestinian refugees. Over seventy years the site has witnessed war, an infamous massacre and waves of refugees. It is now a slum hosting 40,000 peoples – half from Palestine, half from Syria. Shatila presents a challenge for those who call it home. Visitors comment on the impossibly narrow streets, the cramped housing and the dangerous electricity wires that dangle over their head. Locals complain about the armed factions that run the camp, the drug trade and the social problems of child labour (for boys) and early marriage (for girls). But Shatila can also show another side. It’s a place of community, of small businesses and, since October 2018, of cricket.
A Super Star is Born
Amani is in one sense typical of the children who turned up at the astro-turf playground to discover this game. Her family fled from Southern Syria shortly after the war began. She is 12 years old, dresses in a hijab and, lacking sport shoes, prefers to play in bare-feet. She loves to laugh. In fact, when she first runs out onto the playground, she reminds us of a horse let out into a field. She runs the length of the pitch and then performs a dance of her own creation. But her high spirits can hide a more sombre mood. When asked by a journalist why she liked cricket, she responded simply and seriously that she “often feels angry and that the game helps her forget”. For Amani, and for the other children, the sport comes with no history or context. It’s an intriguing, enjoyable, activity that she would like to master. She understands that this is a sport – actually the only team-sport – that refugee girls can play in equality with boys. Her coaches have presented cricket as a “game of peace” – a game which brings together people of different faiths and nationalities, a game that only works if you respect your opponent. Eventually she will also understand that cricket teaches lessons that will help her live well. She will learn how to balance teaming with others and performance as an individual. In particular, she will come to terms with success and, painfully, with failure. But all this comes with time. On the last day of the October cricket camp, we made a more immediate discovery. Amani was, in an important sense, different from her peers. She decided to bowl with a full run-up. She sprinted up to the wickets, leapt in the air and delivered a ball that was too quick for the batsman too hit. We had discovered a female fast-bowler – and they are rare in Shatila or anywhere else for that matter.
The cricket camp in October 2018 was designed as a one-off, one-week, intervention. McKinsey and Company organised the sponsorship and the logistics support. Capital Kids Cricket provided the expert coaching. It soon became clear however that not merely had we identified children with talent, the game was addressing a real need. We piloted weekly cricket sessions for thirty children. They turned up without fail in forty-degree heat or during winter thunderstorms. We doubled, then tripled the number of sessions. The numbers held up and the quality of the matches improved. We booked a second playground, trained up new coaches and expanded the number of children to sixty. By this stage we had begun to develop a coaching philosophy. Other NGOs offered extra-curricular physical exercise to refugee children but our programme seemed to be doing something different – and securing superior outcomes. Like the NGO programmes, we commit to nurturing all the children in our coaching sessions. And we share a passion character-building potential of sport. Unlike them, however, we aim to inspire excellence. Our internal matches are competitive, and we are determined to create cricket teams that will beat other cricket teams. This intent has an extraordinary motivating effect on both our children and our coaches.
A Match in Shatila
In mid-2019 we tested our ability to expand cricket beyond the narrow confines of Shatila. We selected Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley. The children here live in tents and many have never been to school in their lives. They were not used to receiving instruction and we were surprised at how often they resorted to violence to resolve their disagreements. But, if anything, these children were even more rewarding to teach than those in Shatila. They showed exceptional gratitude for the attention they received. More importantly they loved the game. Some of them went back to their camps and began to practice with a stick for a bat and a stone for a ball. We have now organised two matches between Bekaa and Shatila, complete with cups, medals and an enthusiastic audience of parents. Bekaa lost both, but by decreasing margins. Their time will come.
We are now adding a third location: Brummana High School in the hills above Beirut. This fee-paying school offers a world-class education to children of the Lebanese establishment. The contrast with Shatila could not be more complete. We have offered to train up a Brummana team on one condition: that they play competitive matches against our Syrian children. This proposition is not without controversy. Relations between Syrians and Lebanese have been fraught in the last year. Without cricket, these children would never have an opportunity to meet each other. We are grateful to Brummana High School’s visionary headmaster for championing this cause (and volunteering himself to participate in the cricket sessions).
At the time of writing, we have secured cricket in the Lebanon until December 2021. What does this mean exactly? We will educate 200 children across six hubs – Shatila (x2), Bourj Barajneh, Bekaa (x2) and Brummana – and give employment to roughly a dozen Arabic-speaking coaches (who are themselves Syrian refugees). We will maintain high standards. Each child will receive at least two, three-hour, sessions a week. We will stage matches between the hubs once a month. We expect all our children to know the rules, be able to bowl pace or spin and bat with a full range of recognisable strokes. This provision does not come for free. A cricket hub costs roughly 20,000 USD a year. This pays for equipment, the rent of the playground, the coaches’ salaries, refreshments for children and transport. We have managed to cover these costs from three sources. McKinsey will continue to provide a generous level of sponsorship. We have set up “the Shatila Cricket Club”. This consists a group of individuals who have set up monthly standing orders to support the cricket. Finally two foundations – UK’s MCC Foundation and the Netherlands-based Women Win – are each funding hubs in the Bekaa.
We have come a long way in a short period. But we are also just getting started. The Dutch organisation, Women Win, has seen the potential for cricket to support adolescent girls and has committed to fund a fifth cricket hub – and for a period of three years. But there is so much that we would like to achieve. If we can find the funding, we would like to add another 20 hubs and give access to the game to 1,000 children. Such an increase would be under-pinned by multiple “coach the coaches” sessions across the country combined with formal commitments by Lebanese education ministry to pilot cricket as a core extra-curricular activity. We would like to multiply the contacts between our children and cricket-playing children abroad, ideally with tours both to- and from- the Lebanon. Medium-term we will create a Lebanese Cricket Association and apply for associate membership of the International Cricket Conference. This step will require us to follow in the footsteps of Rwanda (as an example) and invest in a facility where cricket can be played with a hard ball. In the 2024 Olympics, we will field a women’s cricket team. Long term, we look to Afghanistan as our example. The conditions here replicate the conditions there. A young refugee population yearns to play competitive sport, improve themselves and establish links with the outside world. Cricket meets all of these needs and more. It is not inconceivable that we could introduce cricket not just in Lebanon but also in the neighbouring countries and thereby educate a whole generation of children in beliefs and behaviours that could bring calm to this troubled region.
Visions of the future begin in the present. We would encourage anyone interested in refugee cricket to visit us. Come on a Thursday. Stay till Monday. We will show you Shatila, Bekaa and Brummana. You will meet Amani and her friends and be astonished – as all outsiders as are – with the welcome you receive. If you know how to play cricket, you will help us coach. And if you don’t, the children will delight in coaching you.
Richard Verity (Partner McKinsey & Company)
Mohammed Khair (Head Coach, Cedar Cricket Club)
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