Since the beginning of August 2016 there have been regular cricket matches between a team drawn from Kashmiri refugees and a team of Pakistani refugees. They play two limited over matches (12 overs per innings) on the astro turf (football pitch) at the Vathi Stadium on Tuesday and Friday mornings starting at 9.30am and finishing at 1pm.
We have been involved since the beginning of September and our main responsibility is to be the bag carriers, bringing the gear-donated by cricket fans in Scotland and Ireland- the water and some fruit and not least the score sheets. Our one other job is to toss the coin to determine which team gets to bat first.
We had no idea what to expect. But from the very beginning it was obvious that many of these guys were good cricketers. Both teams have batsmen and bowlers who are impressive. The astro turf makes it difficult to score runs as the ball is quickly slowed by the surface. So both teams seek to score as many boundaries as possible. The fielding team is mainly set out along the boundaries. It has led to some exciting play as the batsmen launch themselves into huge strokes as they try to clear the boundaries for either 6 or 4 runs. There are spectacular catches every match and it is often in the high quality of the fielding that you realise you are seeing players who know and play the game well.
We knew that cricket was a huge game in Pakistan and Kashmir and that all over these countries there were thousands upon thousands (usually boys and men) playing and watching the game. There is a passion for cricket. So it is with these 2 teams and as we get to know more about the players we learnt that a fair few of them had played in top quality cricket in district, village and university teams. One of them even held a cricket scholarship at university. So little wonder we are privileged to see such a high standard on Samos.
Cricket is not widely known in Greece (outside of Corfu). Not surprisingly the matches attract very few locals although those that have come have enjoyed the exciting play even when totally confused by the rules. Those who do come are mainly other refugees from the camp and a scattering of volunteers. Without exception, all those from ‘outside’ who have come to the matches have found it a moving experience as this visitor from Ireland told us;
“I’m a cricket lover at home having played with my brother so I follow it a little, but as I said to my brother I got more pleasure out of watching that match than any at Lords or the “GABA” in Brisbane.
For me to see the lads with such confidence and enjoying themselves in a normal situation was the most heart warming experience of the fortnight”.
These cricket matches on Samos are not exceptional. For billions of people sport is one of the ways in which they find happiness in a world which is often cruel and gives little or no opportunity to most people to express themselves. Sports can provide spaces where you can breath again and feel human with some autonomy. This is the case with these two refugee teams and their supporters many of whom have now been stuck on Samos for 7 months and many of whom are likely to face deportation when their asylum claims are finally rejected.
Who could not feel utterly dejected by this situation yet it is their refusal to be overwhelmed by depression that is so impressive. These cricket matches are seen by them as life savers. They know it and they cherish it. Those who knew the players before these matches started talked of their deep depression and their occasional bouts of drinking which inevitably led to scuffles and fights. This is no longer the case as the players concern themselves with being fit for the matches. However there are match days when people are down and sad usually following the rejection of asylum appeals and recently with the arrest of six Pakistani refugees from the camp who had exhausted the asylum procedure and were taken to the police cells awaiting deportation to Turkey. Some of these were deported 3 days ago. The cricket can do so much but it does not change their circumstances or their likely future.
The matches provide us with a chance to talk together in ways that are almost impossible within the camp. There is only so much you can say about the horrors of the camp and the endless wait for the authorities to process their claims. Whereas the cricket matches allow for much wider and deeper conversations about their lives, experiences and hopes. There are some exceptions, but the majority of the Kasmiris and Pakistanis want to come to Europe to find a life which is denied them at home. Many want to continue with their university education, more want to find work which will give them a living wage and the possibility of helping the friends and family they leave behind. Such remittances are crucial to many in the most impoverished parts of the world and are far greater and more effective than the combined global humanitarian funds distributed each year.
So many of our conversations with these refugees are identical to those we have with many Greek friends who along with other 200,000 young people have left Greece over the past four years in search of a life not possible in this now stricken society. It is also worth noting that in a recent survey of those leaving Greece 40% gave corruption as a major factor in their decision, which is much the same as we hear from those who come from Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria. However that is where the similarities stop. Giannis and Maria can travel like human beings in search of their futures, but Fatima and Mohammed travel with no dignity and often in danger to end up in places like the Samos Camp. Of course they ask why? But do those born in the right places ever ask why too?