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GAME In Daily Star: Beirut’s youth to get more public space

BEIRUT: Beirut’s governor and mayor have given the go-ahead for a new public space for street games and leisure in Beirut, green-lighting a proposal submitted by Danish NGO “GAME” at the end of 2016. “They approved plans to make a space in the fall, but since it involves land, the governor had to get involved and he has just given the green light,” co-founder Simon Prahm told The Daily Star.

Although the plans are now moving forward, the municipality still needs to finalize the location.

The governor was not available for comment in time for print.

Celebrating the news, Prahm highlighted that public spaces make up a mere 0.5 percent of the capital. Spaces dedicated to physical activity are often costly, he added, preventing access for many.

Despite the damage done to the capital’s public spaces during Lebanon’s Civil War and absence of structured urban planning, Joseph Traboulsi, head of Beirut municipality’s Youth and Sports Council, told The Daily Star that they were “doing the best in Beirut to reverse this inherited situation.”

Traboulsi said that there are two primary obstacles when it comes to increasing the number of public spaces dedicated to sport: bureaucracy and the lack of suitable land.

The difficulty in finding spaces close to highly populated areas and far from industrial sites continues to slow the process, he said.

Wednesday’s news is the result of GAME’s effort to raise awareness about the lack of public spaces for youth in Lebanon. A national campaign “Looking for a Place to Dream” was driven by GAME volunteers at the end of 2016.

These advocates – referred to as “playmakers” by the NGO – made educational visits to schools while decorating the city with posters around the time the proposal was submitted to the municipality.

Operating in Lebanon since 2007, GAME aims to encourage social change by educating youth as role models and street sports instructors. The organization works with municipalities around the country.

One of the short-term solutions identified by GAME is to work in private spaces, such as the basketball courts of Tahwita Modern School in Bourj el-Barajneh. The school offers its space to GAME once a week for disadvantaged youth in the area.

“The children have fun, forget their own problems and feel better about themselves,” said 17-year-old Batoul Nemer, a player for three years and now a GAME playmaker.

He explained that many of the children have troubled personal situations. Her 13-year-old friend Reem Sibaii, also a volunteer, agreed.

“We don’t ask about background or religion here, we are all brothers and sisters,” she added.

The passion shown by the Lebanese playmakers has been noticed by Nikoline Sten and Mathilde Goldmann, GAME volunteers from Denmark, who are spending several months in Lebanon.

“The playmakers here are really engaged and motivated,” Sten said. “The kids are super happy and come here every week,” Goldmann said.

To the sound of Jenno Notto’s dabke, one child entered the basketball court. He maneuvered his way through several obstacles divided by colorful tape and ribbons. While climbing up ladders, dribbling around cones and shooting hoops a playmaker judged his performance. Upon finishing, the next child took his turn as the rest of the crowd cheered and clapped.

Such activities are vital to the health of the capital: while Beirut’s lack of public spaces has marred the quality of life, it has also fueled health issues amongst its youth.

According to Dr. Lara Nasreddine, professor of human nutrition at the American University of Beirut, 29 percent of preschoolers in Lebanon will be obese in 2020 if current trends continue.

“The reach and scope of sports goes beyond the physical as they are also important for psychological and mental health, as well as social inclusion,” Traboulsi said.

While its campaign heavily targeted Beirut, GAME country director Ibrahim Hourani said that they also intended it to be a tool to encourage other municipalities to help their youth to find “places to dream.”

In south Lebanon’s Ansar, the NGO partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council and local municipality to renovate a basketball court. Today, practices are held every Sunday and the municipality has agreed to keep the court open to the public every day.

However, not all endeavors have ended in positive outcomes, Hourani explained. One initiative to renovate a public space near Beirut resulted instead in the creation of a private tennis club.

According to Zeid Khyami, the Director General of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, a decree issued in 2015 included clauses enabling the Ministry to support municipalities to build sports fields aimed at the younger community.

“They own most of the locations needed for these kinds of projects,” Khyami said, adding that the ministry was looking to focus its attention equally between municipalities.

“The budget is limited though,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2018, on page 3.