Refugees are offered hope thanks to the Shatila camp

WHEN an explosion rocked Beirut harbour in early August, it once again thrust the Lebannese capital back into the global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

It also disrupted one of world cricket’s best kept cricket secrets.

The Shatila camp in Beirut was established in 1947, providing shelter for as many as 5000 Palestinian refugees.

Over 70 years on, it’s now home to eight times that number, half from Palestine and half from war-torn Syria. In short, it’s about as far removed from Lord’s as you’re likely to get. Which makes the story of the Shatila cricket programme all the more remarkable.

Set-up in 2018, the programme is now providing cricket coaching to Syrian refugees and giving a sense of purpose to those who have been forced to flee their home countries. Many of those have not only fallen in love with the game but also shown a distinct flair for it.

Originally designed as a one-off cricket camp for refugees inside Shatila, the programme, which is supported by the Club Cricket Charity, has developed into something far more wide-ranging.

With children turning up in the blazing heat of the Middle East summer and in the cool of winter, it has been a battle for those involved to keep pace with demand.

Sessions have doubled and then tripled in number, while new coaches have been trained to look after an expanded programme that now brings the sport to 60 children.

In an otherwise chaotic environment, the sport has once again illustrated its ability to bring calm and serenity.

Not that the kids intent on bowling as fast as nature allows or smiting mighty sixes see it that way.

After the initial set-up in Shatila, the programme – which is the brainchild of McKinsey’s Richard Verity – has expanded to Bar Elias in Lebannon’s Bekaa Valley. Before the pandemic, there were two matches arranged between the Shatila and the newcomers from Bekaa – perhaps the most incongurous setting for a game of cricket anywhere in the world, but one which demonstrated the hold that cricket is gaining in this part of the world.

A third location, in the form of the fee-paying Brummana High School has now been added to the programme. The children at the school will then begin to play competitive matches against the Syrian children who have shown such passion for the sport. As a means of bringing together two countries that have hardly enjoyed the closest of relations in the recent past, it’s a hugely ambitious venture – and one which could have long-lasting and hugely significant and positive ramifications.

The creation of a fifth hub, run by a Dutch organisation, Women Win, will aim to bring the sport to a generation of adolescent girls for the next three years. The long-term aim is to add a further 20 hubs in order to deliver the sport to 1,000 children.

It’s a hugely ambitious project and one that once again demonstrates the power of cricket and it’s ability to not only unite people from different nationalities but also teach so many of the values that can help bring peace and collaboration in a part of the world where both are desperately needed.

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