Rugby League: Chicken Soup for the Soul …

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This story is for all those sceptics who think it’s a waste of time spreading rugby league north of Workington and south of Manchester; who think that attendances at the Quins are the metric by which success ought to be judged; who have no faith in our game or a vested interest in their own colloquial viewpoint.

Sports help build bridges between societies
Rabie Al Masri, Founder, Palestinian Rugby League

The Al Masri brothers – Rabie, Ahmad and Mohammed – have worked hard to create a thriving rugby league community in Lebanon. Now their work in also taking that game into the Palestinian refugee camps is also bearing fruit.

The three dreamt of creating a rugby league team to represent the Palestinian people; of using the sport to showcase the peoples’ talents and work ethic; of it being a part of a process of their rebuilding their self-esteem and sense of dignity.

Since 2008 they have been making that dream reality.

Rabie, director and founder of the Palestinian Rugby League, started training potential players from different Palestinian camps in Lebanon, with no financial support; just an iron will and his physical abilities.

Talking of the dream, Rabie stressed:

The goal was to help the Palestinian youth inside the camps reflect the best image of Palestine, and stay healthy and fit.

This game will help the players vent out their distress on the pitch. Sports help build bridges between societies especially the Lebanese and Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanon.

Since then Rabie and Ahmed have gathered 80 players to form three Palestinian teams. The under-14s ranked second in the Arab championship in Lebanon in Bhamdoun, while the under-16s ranked third in the Middle East and North Africa championship.

Their success saw rugby league included as the only sporting event in the recent Dignity For All Festival in Beirut. An event that brought overwhelmingly positive reaction from all parties including the United Nations Refugees and Works Agency observers; who deemed it a great success. Praise that was echoed by the host American University of Beirut (AUB) and both the Palestinian and Middle East North Africa Rugby League organisations.

Although Lebanese RL Federation outfit, AUB, won the exhibition match 28-10, the Palestinian XIII received tremendous support from fans and key officials alike. Busloads of relatives and friends, many of whom were wearing eye-catching red, black, white and green coloured t-shirts that had been produced especially for the day and waving the Palestinian flag, flooded the centre swelling the crowd to well over 2,000 an hour before kick-off.

Palestinian Rugby League founder Rabie El Masri, could hardly contain his pride after the emotional evening, saying:

This match was very far away from the reality of two years ago; it was a dream for me.

Even more so for the Palestinian boys and girls.

I went to the camps looking for players, I trained guys in all kinds of weather, we were laughing and happy playing rugby league even though some of them don’t have sports shoes.

I did rugby league sessions in Nahr el Bared camp [largely destroyed in a 2008 conflict] and people were happy, the children were laughing.

If you check out that link and watch the short video, you’ll see why that is important. Why sports’ ability to distract, to engage and entertain, is bringing laughter to the faces of children born in strife.

The pioneers who are taking rugby league into all corners of the world, yes even – Wrexham and Campden – deserve respect not the snide water-cooler derision that is sometimes dished-out on them.

For rugby league to be even a small part of the return to normality for the refugees ought to be a source of pride for any one associated with the game.

Rugby League is bigger than the M62 corridor, trust in it and be bold, and great things will happen.

That’s a message the that the half-hearted spin-doctors at RFL headquarters might like to take to heart.