Episode 39: The sky is the limit for Alsama Cricket Club, where refugees from Syria get new lives

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Alsama means “the sky” in Arabic. It gives its name to a cricket club in one of the world’s most astonishing locations – the teeming Shatila camp in Lebanon where tens of thousands of refugees are trying to rebuild lives shattered by war, tyranny and deprivation. alsamaproject.com/cedar-cricket-club

Three expressive teenagers – Louay, Maram, and Amani – are among the 200 or so children between 11 and 16 who have learnt to play the game there. Cricket gave them new goals and a new sense of self-worth. They and the club’s founder and director, Richard Verity, are the guests of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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“It was very hard to live with Isis. You could see them cutting off the heads and cutting off the hands of some people.”  Maram, 15-year-old refugee, on the life cricket is helping her to forget.

Richard Verity describes the social, economic and demographic background of the Shatila camp, and its long legacy of suffering. He explains why he interrupted his career as a partner in McKinsey, the leading management consultancy, to bring cricket to this unlikely setting. The cricket club is part of the wider Alsama project which is one of the few organisations delivering a secondary education to teenagers from the refugee community. Working alongside his wife, Meike, he lit on the game as something which could bring an extra dimension to local children’s lives with no language barrier. In autumn 2018 the first day of a one-off cricket camp, on the local astroturf football pitch, attracted twenty curious children. The next day produced 120 eager ones. Demand since then has spurred the creation of four other cricket centres, with several cricket sessions each week, not only in refugee camps but also, with the help of its enthusiastic Scottish headmaster, David Gray, at Lebanon’s leading school, Brummana High School.

Richard Verity describes how he had to rethink completely his experience of cricket to bring its strengths to refugee children, and local Arabic-speaking coaches, to whom it was utterly new. They discovered its unique mix of skills, its blend of high energy and discipline, its power to break down gender barriers, and its demand for mutual respect among competing players.  He emphasizes the club’s commitment to excellence in the development of cricket skills and its aspiration to produce teams that can win “proper” cricket matches, and the positive impact this has produced for the children.

Louay, Maram, and Amani vividly and movingly describe their present and past lives and their new ambitions for the future, which all include cricket. The energy they bring to cricket has fed into their education and family lives. All three families escaped life under Isis rule, where children, especially girls, were deprived of education and of all the normal joys of growing up, including sport. Boys faced the threat of being pressganged into the Isis army, girls that of child marriage and sex slavery. All three say how cricket has helped them become new people. Louai is rightly proud of his winning record as captain and his magic spin delivery.  Maram reads her poem with sharp images of the best and worst of life in her native Syria. Amani explains how cricket has helped her be strong and win respect from the boys for her leadership skills.  They are all big fans of the Rajasthan Royals whom they have been able to watch on satellite television in the IPL. They name the same favourite player – Jofra  Archer – and have enjoyed exchanges with Tom Curran and Faf du Plessis. The children were translated by a talented coach, Mohamed Hariri, another escapee from Syria with his own dramatic discovery of cricket.

Richard Verity describes the methods the club has evolved to teach cricket to children and Syrian refugee coaches. He compares them to the Suzuki method of violin teaching, so that individual cricket movements are taught first to children in isolation with the aim of transferring them to actual play. This is not always realized when the children experience the excitement of actual play, but eventually the skills become embedded and used. The coaches’ experience of cricket is very similar to the children’s, and they too derive the personal satisfaction of mastering new skills and being able to teach them.

He expresses his gratitude for the support and encouragement of the MCC Foundation as well as the Rajasthan Royals and the Women Win organization from the Netherlands. He sets out the Alsama club’s ambitions – to provide cricket to a thousand refugee children to meet the growing demand and provide more high-quality secondary education. Over the longer term he hopes to send a Lebanese women’s team to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2024, and through refugee cricket, to turn Lebanon and Iraq into cricket nations. Meanwhile, the club would love to host visiting teams – although they will need to be on their mettle to face Louay or Amani in particular.

To find out more about Alsama cricket and become a supporter please use this link alsamaproject.com/get-involved

Get in contact with the podcast by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we’d love to hear from you!

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

Next episode – Episode 40: Another fast scoring inninngs by Mahela Jayawardene

Previous Episode – Episode 38: What happened to the magic of Sri Lankan cricket?

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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