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Cricket in Shatila!

Cricket in Shatila!

Cricket grows slowly outside the English-speaking world. The International Cricket Council expelled Cuba and its Spanish-speaking team for being under government control, while every Sri Lankan team has to be submitted for approval by its minister of sport. Yet Syrian refugees in the Shatila camp in Beirut are taking their first steps to assemble an Arabic-speaking team.

Almost two million people have fled from the Syrian civil war to Lebanon, although there are no official statistics, and about a third of them children. In 1949, Shatila was opened for 3,000 Palestinian refugees, and now that Syrians have been shoehorned in alongside, the camp is estimated to house more than ten times that number of people. They have shelter, blankets, food and medical care provided by the United Nations, but nothing much to do: the Lebanese government allows the camp’s inhabitants to do only the most manual labour.

Hence, when cricket was offered in Shatila last October, 40 Syrian refugee boys and girls turned up for the first session, and 140 by the end of the week. The organisers are the local charity, Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which funds other projects in the camp, and the management consultants McKinsey & Company, who are providing pro bono support for some of Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s activities, in particular education programmes for children. The Shatila camp became a worldwide name in 1982 when the Lebanese Christian Phalangists were allowed by the Israeli Defence Force to massacre a never-verified number of Palestinians. 

If cricket has made little headway in the Arab world before, it has a unique selling point. As in Rwanda, which too has seen massacres, cricket can arrive in Lebanon without any baggage: it is not gender-specific, and not associated with the colonising power, which was France. It is just fun.

Especially, that is, when the coaching is done by Capital Kids Cricket, which was invited in by Basmeh & Zeitooneh and McKinsey. CKC was founded in 1989 to promote the sport in London schools which were seeing their playing fields being sold off, and it receives far less funding than better-known cricket charities. Yet it is CKC, under its indefatigably enthusiastic CEO Shahidul Alam or “Ratan”, that is putting together the biggest primary schools festival ever, during the World Cup in July, when 2,500 children are due to play more than 100 games at one time on the same day on Hackney Marshes and set a world record.

Ratan, who coached Bangladesh Under-19s before moving to London, was never going to pass up a project in a refugee camp in Beirut. Shatila has one asset too, apart from the willingness of its inhabitants: a football field with an artificial surface which is suitable for batting.

The current ambition is to stage a two-hour session every Friday afternoon in Shatila and create an under-13 and under-14 team of players of both genders – who, ideally, will compete in the mini-World Cup to be staged on Hackney Marshes. A Bola Junior bowling machine will be flown out in March to expedite the development of Syrian batting and fielding.

The first recorded reference to cricket being played abroad was in Syria, by sailors and residents in Aleppo, which was then nearer the sea, in 1676.

A lot has flowed under the bridges of the Near East since then, but at last the sport is back, and ready to rebuild bridges in its unique way.

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