Beirut, Lebanon – Nabil Khalaf is running back and forth on uneven ground between a wrecked car and a discarded bathtub, bat in hand, in the haphazard alleyways of the Shatila refugee camp.
The 15-year-old is a refugee from Syria and now lives in Shatila, a camp in southern Beirut that has historically been home to Palestinian refugees.
In the camp, everything is scarce: space, water, electricity, security and education.
“Before, I was an angry person, who couldn’t control his feelings,” Khalaf told Al Jazeera, explaining how he used to stay at home, away from school, his parents afraid if he ventured out onto the streets of Shatila.
But now, how Khalaf feels, and his comfort with his surroundings, have changed. And one of the major reasons is the sport he has picked up, one that is largely alien to people in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the wider Middle East: cricket.
Khalaf was introduced to the sport by the Alsama Project, which provides schooling for 200 Syrian refugees in Shatila. Its unique curriculum covers mathematics, Arabic, English, and six hours of cricket weekly.
Kadria Hussien, Alsama’s operations manager in Lebanon, said that introducing cricket training programmes provided teenagers with “mental health support”, as well as a structure “that does not exist in the camp”.
“Cricket has changed my life,” Khalaf said, while grinning. After three years of practice, he now feels “happy and alive” when playing.
According to Hussien, cricket, which has been part of the curriculum since 2018, has become a tool for Alsama to teach the programme’s participants the importance of making “the effort needed to succeed, which helps [the children] to study seriously”.
Up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, with many facing extreme poverty as the country faces an economic crisis, and discrimination, with the government recently beginning what it termed “voluntary repatriation” that actively encourages refugees to return to Syria.
Only 24 percent of Syrian refugees aged between 15 and 19 were enrolled in school or university in 2021, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Hussien is a Syrian refugee herself, having arrived in Lebanon with five children who she homeschooled to ensure the continuation of their education.
That experience has given her first-hand knowledge of the issues her community faces in Lebanon, and the various traumatic experiences the children may have gone through, such as violence as a result of the war in Syria and life as a refugee in Lebanon, and child labour.
After two years in Alsama’s educational institute in Shatila, Khalaf can now read and write. But he is quick to point out that cricket had also contributed to his ability to express himself “and communicate more with people”.
And it has given him more responsibility, too: Khalaf is now the assistant to Mohammed Khier, the head coach of the cricket team.
Khier is one pillar of the eclectic trio that founded Alsama. He met Hussien, and Meike Ziervogel, a German publisher who lives in Lebanon and is the current CEO, in 2018 through one of the plethora of NGOs that exist in Shatila.
Ziervogel’s husband, a partner at the international management consultancy McKinsey, introduced his love of cricket to the camp.
Born out of the budding friendship, the registered NGO quickly professionalised.
Ziervogel used her private funds to kick-start the Alsama project.
The team assessed curriculums and teaching, with the goal of having the students pass the Lebanese brevet, or intermediate, exams in three to five years.
The success in Shatila has led to a widening of Alsama’s aims – they opened a second school in March in Burj al-Barajneh, a separate refugee camp in southern Beirut, catering for the needs of another 200 teenagers.
The entrenchment of the project among the Syrian community has a wider aim – to help give young Syrians the skills not just to have a better life in Lebanon, but also to rebuild Syria when, and if, they can return safely.
Alsama has faced some challenges – teaching both boys and girls, and having them play cricket together, initially led to some backlash from parents and the wider community.
“At first, our students didn’t respect each other,” Khier recalled. “We taught them about respect and came up with rules.”
Now practice runs smoothly: students who have passed the assistant coach exam conduct warm-ups, players turn to the coach in case of a dispute and girls and boys play alongside each other happily.
“My best friend is a boy now,” said Maram.
Like Khalaf, Maram is 15 years old, and has been a student at Alsama for two years. She was among the first to get cricket training, three years ago.
“At first my family didn’t want me to play with boys, but the teacher Kadria told them I wouldn’t be hurt,” Maram, who is also an assistant coach, said in her now fluent English – a language she only began to learn nine months earlier.
“In cricket, you are in another world,” Maram, who had been out of school between the ages of six and eleven, added.
The teenager says that Alsama has also helped her escape child marriage, after her parents had decided that she should be married at 12.
In Lebanon, teenage Syrian girls are often vulnerable to child marriage, with 40.5 percent of 20-24-year-old respondents in a UN survey reporting that they had been married before the age of 18.
Alsama stepped in on Maram’s behalf.
“Kadria told my parents I was too young,” Maram recalled. “My father agreed to delay the wedding until I was 16, but she said that I should marry who I want when I want. I was over the moon.”
Hussien said that reversing the parents’ decision took eight months of concerted effort.
And as a reward, she can now watch Maram running on the cricket pitch, playing her favourite sport.