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Shatila's First Girls Basketball Team

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are excluded from the social and political sphere. They are prohibited from pursing citizenship, working in high-skilled professions, and owning property in the country. But a team of Palestinian teenage girls have found...

by Mat Nashed
Jan 30 2014, 7:00pm

Palestinians refugees in Lebanon are excluded from the social and political sphere. They are prohibited from pursing citizenship, working in high-skilled professions, and owning property in the country.

While many children in refugee camps have few options, spending their days going to school, manning unhygienic machinery, or working in family markets, for a team of girls, basketball has become a steady influence.

“I found my soul with this sport,” said Noor, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, smiling as she neatly sunk a basketball through an iron rim with no net.

Noor lives with her family in Shatila, a 65-year-old Palestinian camp in south Beirut and one of 12 ungoverned by the Lebanese state. With sewage covering the streets and electric wires dangling in the air, remnants of the 15-year civil war are still visible. And for Palestinians such as Noor, Shatila symbolizes eternal displacement.

Noor is part of the first all-girls team to emerge in Shatila. “We play twice a week,” she said smiling, as she held the basketball against her hip. 

“Girls in this camp have just as much of a right to play as the boys,” said Mejdi, the team's coach.

Mejdi is a construction painter who struggles to support his family with a meager 400 dollars a month. Since finding a playground less than a mile from the camp, he’s trained the team every weekend. With an emphasis on teamwork and sportsmanship, many parents have welcomed his efforts.

“This is the significance of basketball,” said Razan, coach Mejdi’s 14-year-old daughter. “We’re not just a team, we’re a voice.”

With state restrictions facilitating poverty and broken governance in the camp, the children of Shatila have had little safety to play. While poverty often pushes boys to help their families financially, lack of security confines most girls indoors. Consequently, displacement has severely impacted a child’s right to play.

Mejdi recalls his reluctance from time to time, but never second guesses himself. “Imagine sharing a home with 20,000 people who you don’t know. This is life here. This isn’t about restricting a child, it’s about security.”

Since many of the girls’ parents survived the civil war and sieges of the camps, it seems past traumas have influenced their children’s upbringing. Memories of Palestinian guerrillas, Israel’s invasionand the frailty of Lebanese society are summoned to rationalize Palestinian exclusion. And with the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, parents remain hesitant to let their daughters play outside.

Many of the players heard about the club from their friends at school. And as word about the team traveled, more parents considered the idea. However, not everyone was convinced.

“You don’t know what we’ve seen as children,” said Samir who’s the father of Hannah, the team’s playmaker. “We want her to play, but this isn’t a safe environment.”

It wasn’t until coach Mejdi and Razan visited Hannah’s home that her father began to reconsider. “I told Samir that I’ll look after Hannah the way I look after Razan, as if she was my own daughter,” said Mejdi.

Despite Samir’s reluctance, he soon put confidence in Mejdi. Yet more significantly, he built greater trust with Hannah as well.

“I never asked my parents to play until I heard about the basketball club,” said Hannah. “But now I feel a possibility with this game. If I work I can be great.

Hannah’s mother, Nabine, was always against the idea that girls should be restricted. However, she was always more afraid of what might happen to Hannah in the camp. It wasn’t until Hannah came home from playing basketball for the first time that Nabine felt it too. She shared her daughter’s unfamiliar freedom.

“I never had the chance to play as a child, there were never any clubs for girls,” said Nabine as she wrapped her arms around Hannah. “I thank God. I’m thankful for this team.”

With winter approaching, coach Mejdi has had to find an indoor basketball court for the girls to play, a task that hasn’t been easy.

“I found a Christian school willing to lend facilities and transport for 250 dollars a month, but I just can’t afford that,” said Mejdi.

Despite the obstacles, the team remains committed. Just three months ago, a week before the team played their first organized game, coach Mejdi encouraged parents to come to the match. “I wanted the team to convince their parents they weren’t here without reason,” said Mejdi. “I wanted their parents to see what their kids could do on the court.”

With Hannah sprinting down the wings, Noor chasing every rebound, and Razan leading the team, Shatila’s first basketball club relished every moment of the match. As Majdi stood on the sidelines with his arms folded, watching his players voice modest “good jobs” after each made basket, it was clear the team never ceased to compete. 

Although the team ultimately lost to a squad from a Lebanese Middle school in Sidon, a city about an hour drive south from Beirut, something greater had taken place. The team had evolved to include those watching.

Yet while Mejdi finds difficulties raising 750 dollars to keep the team playing from January to April, his daughter embraces her freedom today. With her back against the wall and a basketball between her knees, Razan took notice of her father.

“We have a right to play,” said Razan. “And we’ll never let it go.”