Refugees find peace on the crease: ‘Cricket built my personality’

Apr 9, 2024 | News

In a refugee settlement in Lebanon, cricket helps Syrian and Palestinian teenagers overcome terrible experiences. Cricket is not widely played in their countries of origin, but it provides a blank slate – an opportunity to experience joy and possibilities

The England women’s Lionesses helped make football popular with girls. Cricket is also gaining popularity. Take Wissal Al-Jaber (16) and her friend Ola Al-Khalaf (17). Wissal is a great off-spinner, and she’s also a cricket coach. Ola is a powerful batter. They’d like to play for their nation, just as many young sports fans would.

Perhaps a typical dream – but not when the country is Syria. Wissal, and Ola, are two of the 40,000 refugees – mainly Syrians, but also Palestinians – who live in the overcrowded Shatila Camp. It was originally built for 3,000 residents, but now houses 40,000. It’s not the most likely of playing fields, but it is a haven of hope for these young women.

Wissal, Ola, and their siblings grew up in Deir ez-Zor (Syria), which was overrun by Isis militants as children. Wissal, who spoke to me on Zoom From Shatila from Syria, shuddered as she recalled “the worst things you’ll see in your life… body parts right there on street, lots of head”

“Yes?” (Wissal makes sure I understand her before moving on but… heads?)

“Yes,” says Ola, almost casually, “they were chopping off people’s head.”

She held a gun to her own. Both were lucky that they survived. Even luckier was to make it into Shatila and into the arms (or’sky’) of Alsama. This four-year old NGO is changing the lives of children who were left largely unaffected by other charities because they deemed the area too dangerous, rife with armed groups and drug trafficking.

Richard Verity and Meike Ziervogel, a couple based in London at the time founded Alsama. They knew the area: Verity had worked with McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, as a volunteer in Shatila. After experiencing “synchronised midlife crises” and leading a very comfortable, privileged life without any social impact, he and Ziervogel thought about the children they had met in Shatila and their desire for education. Alsama was founded with the goal of empowering refugee children, most of whom were illiterate and had never attended school.

Maram is an Alsama student who is also a MCC Young Ambassador and a cricket coach.

Verity says that the girls’ appetite for learning was extraordinary. “They really pushed it. They made posters and banners that said they wanted to learn English and maths. They wanted to go to the school. It’s so different from the work ethic of most western children. These girls know that education is a gift, not a burden.

Alsama, who has been in the field for four years, has opened three schools and is planning a fourth. She teaches English, Arabic, maths, IT and coding, and empowers girls. This helps them avoid the traps that are all too common for Syrian refugee girl, such as very early (teenage), marriage. The schools are open for 44 weeks a year in order to compress the 12 years of education that is usually required into six. The goal is to prepare students to attend university. They teach about 900 students but have a three-times longer waiting list.

Why cricket? It’s not part of the local culture, but that could be part of what makes it appealing to traumatised children in the region. It’s new, different, and – most importantly – something that girls can excel at alongside boys, as Mohammed Khier, Alsama’s Palestinian-Syrian cricket coach, explains.

Cricket is a non-contact game, so both sexes are able to play together.

Cricket is a noncontact sport. This means that both sexes are able to play together. And they do. Alsama has 550 cricketers, almost equally split between men and women. Cricket is a great way to teach teamwork and cooperation.

There’s no denying its popularity. The cricket hubs of Bourj el Barajneh, Beqaa Valley and Shatila are fiercely competitive. Even international games are being discussed. The biggest impact on young women has been their own. Wissal says, “I was a shy child as a youngster.” “But cricket helped build my personality: I learnt to speak up.”

Ola agrees. “I love hitting it really hard. When I hit sixes, I feel as if I am achieving my goals. It’s as if I’m expressing what my life’s aim is. The ball goes to the end – and I can too.”

Martin Wright, director of Positive News

Main image: Ollie B. Tikare

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