Cricket, an unlikely – but real – escape for refugee girls in Lebanon

Dr.  Sarah Fane meets girl cricketers in Lebanon

I saw the healing power of sport in Lebanon (Photo: MCC Foundation)

Maram is 15.

She saw friends die in Syria. She left her doll there, which used to provide comfort in the midst of the trauma of the war.

When you saw her play cricket, you would never guess her background story. She is preoccupied with the game: focused, determined and happy.

Cricket helps her to forget and become a child again. I will never forget watching her play, a vision of the healing power of the sport.

I spent most of my working life in Afghanistan, first as a war doctor, before later setting up a charity that provided educational and cricket opportunities for children.

The cricket element of our work was an unlikely addition, prompted by my son, who wanted us to win the national team in its infancy and give young people the opportunity to play.

Its success and the joy and hope it brought to a nation was a surprise, and from which I learned how the intoxicating combination of education and sport can change lives, especially for girls.

I now find myself as the director of the MCC Foundation, the charitable arm of the Marylebone Cricket Club, based on Lord’s Cricket Ground, with a whole new opportunity to transform life through cricket.

Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon may seem like an unlikely place to start. I have just returned from a visit there with MCC President and former England women’s captain Clare Connor, MCC Director Guy Lavender and MCC Foundation shop steward Mehmooda Duke.

The purpose of our trip was to visit the fund’s outreach projects in three of Lebanon’s refugee camps: Shatila, Bourj-El Barajneh and the Beqaa Valley.

Shatila, established in 1949, originally as a temporary home for displaced Palestinians, has grown within its 1,000-strong border, and today houses more than about 40,000 refugees, many Syrians. Although now physically removed from the conflicts, trauma clings to the residents, who carry both emotional and physical scars. And for the most part, these camps provide little refuge.

There is minimal access to basic services such as health care, education and social welfare, and these barriers are worse for women and young girls, who face domestic violence, discrimination and exploitation. Early marriage is widespread.

For children who have been born in the camps, the odds are stacked against them from the beginning, with no official papers, and oppressive employment regulations that prevent them from entering most industries outside the camp. They are suspended in statelessness.

When you grow up surrounded by darkness, it is difficult to adapt to the light.

And then there is Alsama. Tucked away down a small alley in a settlement where every inch of land is occupied by crowded shelters and the skyline is hidden by hanging cables, Alsama (Arabic for ‘heaven’) is a high school, a beacon of hope and comfort for 200 Syrian boys and girls.

When you enter, the happy sum of voices, carefully swept floors, and radiant smiles from every child you meet are incompatible with the relentless world outside its freshly painted walls.

Dr.  Sarah Fane with female cricketers in Lebanon

The children treat each other with respect, love and encouragement (Photo: MCC Foundation)

Established in 2019, Alsama has in two years become a thriving center of excellence, where children who were once barely educated, now studying mathematics, Arabic and English as core subjects, are offered creative writing and poetry lessons and – the driving force behind our visit – cricket coaching.

The MCC Foundation funds four of Alsama’s eight cricket hubs, and provides transferable skills and opportunities to young girls and boys in three refugee camps in Lebanon.

In the midst of the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II, which we are currently witnessing in Ukraine, the need to provide opportunities like this could not be more obvious.

When we visited our projects in Lebanon, we saw on our own how enriching this wonderful sport can be. The soft skills that are synonymous with cricket – confidence, discipline, teamwork – are on display in abundance, but it is the therapeutic properties of the sport that are most nourishing.

When traveling between camps and playing with children for up to six hours a day, the abundance and determination shown is a pleasure to witness. Girls play with boys – and often overplay them.

The most promising girl cricketers are now junior coaches who train boys and girls and challenge the status quo. The freedom they feel to escape the boundaries of the camp is clear and their energy limitless.

Most impressive is the way they treat each other with such respect, love and encouragement. They are a chain, each of them a joint, and they have an indestructible bond that holds them close together.

They encourage each other; the boys respect the girls and talk about feminism and they are there 100% for each other. If one ever falters, the hands of their friends go out to support.

The opportunity to learn from a former English women’s captain, Clare Connor, provided additional energy and inspiration to both the female coaches – former Alsama Cricket participants who have taken on leadership roles – as well as the children themselves.

Cricket is the only structure for these children and it is a lifeline. They never miss a session, they make bats from any tree they can find, they dream of playing for Lebanon or maybe even their beloved Syria one day.

In addition to operating in Lebanon, the foundation provides hubs in Nepal, where few girls get to play sports, and helps young people access and advance through the game. In the UK, the foundation runs a project that provides free coaching to around 3,000 promising state-trained cricketers, girls and boys across more than 70 hubs. The proportion of girls is expected to increase from 30% to 50% over the next few years.

For the past few months, the Foundation has hosted weekly sessions at Lord’s for Afghan refugees and their families, providing a safe place for girls to get together, rebuild their confidence and learn new skills at home in cricket.

Sport is truly unique and our experience in Lebanon crystallized this in our minds; When we look at the extremely challenging circumstances that many young girls face around the world, we must cherish and promote everything that faces these barriers.

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