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 now run 13 cricket hubs and engage over 550 players using a team of talented professional Coaches and over 30 student Assistant and Junior Coaches. We deliver cricket training to each child at least twice per week for three hours at a minimum and frequently stage matches between the hubs as well as our very successful Summer Competition. expect all our children to know the rules, be able to bowl pace or spin and bat with a full range of recognisable strokes. Many of our students have progressed to hard ball and have regular nets practice. This provision does not come for free. A cricket hub costs roughly 15,000 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 thanks to the generous support of many donors, and particularly strong support from Women Win and the MCC Foundation. We have also set up “the Shatila Cricket Club”. This consists a group of individuals who have set up monthly standing orders to support the cricket.
We have come a long way in a short period. But we are also just getting started. Over the next five years we intend to expand to 32 hubs and engage over 1,200 players. Such an increase would be under-pinned by a strong coach development program, involving the training of our coaches to ICC Level 2. 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. 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 our hubs in Shatila and Bekaa. 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.
Like all of Alsama, our Cricket Hubs operate with a no-frills, bootstrapping philosophy, putting the maximum amount of funds directly towards our coaches and their players.
- $2,000 of equipment costs to setup a new cricket hub
- $15,000 to run a cricket hub for 1 year, giving 40 players over 6 hours of training per weekend, 44 weeks of the year
If you like to get involved, please email: email@example.com