A safe space for children to play sports

By guest blogger Katrine Bruun Bonnén

The citizens of Beirut are facing several challenges if they want to stay physically active. The city is full of cars and the traffic is heavy. Membership of a sports club is a luxury many can not afford and there are hardly any places for free public play. This is causing obesity and diabetes rates to be on the rise. To break the disturbing statistics future generations need more opportunities for physical activity in their everyday life.

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Youth in Beirut using what space is available

A safe environment where children can develop their potential
The latest report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Lebanon released last month revealed both improvements as well as challenges that have to be faced. Amongst the latter Lebanon’s commitment to create a safe environment where children can develop their potential in line with the fundamental principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was reaffirmed. A safe environment to develop potential must also include a safe place to do physical activity. A further look into the report shows that it also concludes that the opportunity to play sports is not available for children free of charge.

Lack of public spaces in Beirut
So what are the chances that children living in Beirut can meet up and play a match of football in their neighborhood without spending a lot of money on membership fees? Or what are the opportunities for the youths who want go for a run in the streets? Well, these young people might face some difficulties. The problem is, that there is a lack of green, public spaces in Beirut, as described in earlier posts on this blog. While the public spaces in Beirut have decreased the population have increased over the later years. WHO recommends that urban areas should have a minimum of 9 m2 of green space per person available with an ideal standard between 10 to 15 m2 (UNDP). Beirut has as little as 0.8 m2 per person. But isn’t this just the reality of the Middle East, one of the most contested areas in the world? Well, according to UN Habitat, Middle Eastern cities consist of only 2 % public space, compared to 12 % in an average European city. But in Beirut the number is mere 0.5 % (The Economist), so Beirut seems to be in a league of its own. The biggest park in Beirut is Horsh Beirut, but the park is fenced in and the entrance is restricted and only open in the weekends. The only public places you can go and play sports for free are in Qasqas and Corniche El Nahr in Ashrafieh which thus should make it up for the approximately 1,6 million people who lives in Beirut (World Bank). The public place in Qasqas is very popular and well attended, which indicates that more places like this is needed in Beirut.

Car accumulation in Beirut
If you want to stay active, an alternative to the public spaces could be a run or a ride on your bike. But in Beirut that option also seems to meet some severe challenges. The sidewalks are often bumpy, full of trash or parked cars and sometimes the sidewalks are non-existing so you would prefer to run in the road. According to WHO’s Global Status Report On Road Safety in 2015 there are no policies that promote walking and cycling. You rarely see a bike or a runner in Beirut and it’s easy to understand why. Precarious road conditions, heavy traffic and risky driving cause a high number of road casualties. In 2013, the traffic mortality rate was 22.6 out of 100.000, 43 % of which were pedestrians (WHO). The roads are not designed for runners or bikers so this is not a place to turn to for physical exercise.

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Wanna go for a run?

Diabetes on the rise
The citizens’ access to safe spaces for exercise is an important factor in order to reduce the high level of diabetes cases that Lebanon is facing. According to a report from International Diabetes Federation, 12.2 % of the population in Lebanon had diabetes in 2015. In comparison the global prevalence rate is 8.5 %. An unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle is resulting in rising obesity among the population. As many as 65 % of the Lebanese are overweight, and every fourth men and every third woman are obese (WHO). One of the main risk factors of developing diabetes is overweight. Also the urban life is linked with the disease due to factors such as increased junk food consumption, the lack of space for exercise and economic inequalities. The citizens of Beirut might be aware of how to live a healthy life, but knowledge by itself is not enough, as social determinants also have a significant impact on people’s lifestyle. Before the Syrian crisis, one out of four of the residents of Lebanon had problems covering the basic needs such as rent, food and health care. With the high number of displaced people today this number is now estimated to more than one out of three, making a nutritious diet an option not available to many.

Free sports for children and youth
The list of barriers for physical activity is long and includes a severe lack of public spaces for exercise, membership fees that are only affordable for a fraction of the population, and heavy traffic that makes it difficult for the individual to stay active running or biking. These are just some of the challenges the citizens of Beirut are facing if they wish to stay fit and healthy. And if people are not provided with the option to choose a more healthy and active lifestyle then the obesity rates will continue to increase leading to an epidemic rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

The Municipality of Beirut seems to be aware of all this, as they in partnership with the NGO GAME are looking for more places for play. One of the projects is to find an unused building, which can be refurbished as a public indoor street sports facility where the children and youth of the city can engage in sports. GAME which is founded in Denmark but has been present in Lebanon since 2007 has engaged more than 10,000 children and youth through its weekly football, basketball and dance activities across the country. In the first month of GAME’s 10 year anniversary season, more than 800 children have benefitted from the flexible and accessible sport-for-all opportunity. A delegation from the Municipality of Beirut visited GAME’s indoor street sports facility in Copenhagen in February this year to get inspiration for a similar facility in Beirut. Finding a suitable space is still the next big step to move ahead on the pressing need for more public spaces for play, but unfortunately the Municipality hasn’t yet succeeded in finding a building they are willing to prioritize for the purpose.

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Children participating in GAME’s weekly street sports practices in Beirut

If staying active and healthy is a priority amongst the population, the promise to include it in the urban planning of Beirut must be taken seriously. Lebanon has faced and is facing many challenges, but without a population with a healthy mind in a healthy body, the challenges are not going to get any easier. A new bike path across the city is supposedly on its way, but it would suit the Municipality of Beirut to fulfill its commitment to establish more free public spaces where children and youth can play and engage in sports. This will both serve to prevent lifestyle diseases as well as let people with different backgrounds meet and build social ties across Lebanon’s many divides.

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Lebanon – an example for the world to follow?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of opening the 2017 Season Start-up Playmaker Camp for 102 young volunteers in Beirut, Lebanon. With street sports activities starting up in new neighborhoods across the country from Sour in the South to Tripoli in the North, it was a great opportunity to let the young role models know how special they are. In this blog-post you can read part of the speech and learn why:

I would like to give you a special welcome to all our newcomers – I hope you will find the program today both interesting and empowering. And when you leave this afternoon you may even know one or two people you wish to add on Facebook. And to all our returning Playmakers, let’s make sure to reach out to all our newcomers and make this Playmaker Camp as good as the previous ones.

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The world needs you

The world needs you more than ever! With Trump in office in the US, Britain leaving the EU, and the evolving civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the world is becoming more divided as we speak. Minorities are under pressure – from Muslims in the US, Jews in London, to Kurds in Turkey.

Here in Lebanon you have a proud history. Yes, you’ve been through a civil war and there are still many things that do not function as it should. Electricity, internet, waste management, etc.. But you have also shown time and again that a multi-ethnic state is possible. Lebanon is a very unique mosaic of culture and civilization, that can provide learning and be an example for the rest of the world.

With 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country Lebanon is the country in the world with the highest percentage of refugees. In fact we have some of them here with us today. You ought to be proud of having opened your door, when other countries continue to close theirs. This gesture calls for good efforts all over the country in order to create opportunities for the less advantaged who are living under tough living conditions.

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10 Years Anniversary

For 10 years GAME Lebanon has done just that. Together we have created access to street sport for children and youth around the country – including refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. And with the street sports compendium you will be using today, we’ve been able to teach them skills that they can use in other aspects in life. Over the years we’ve reached a total of 10,000 children and youth, with more than 2,000 in 2016 alone.

With new GAME Zones in Maachouk, Ansaar, and Tripoli, this year we are looking to set new heights. As Playmakers you are the backbone of our organization, as your volunteer efforts makes it possible to create social change in 10 neighborhoods across the country.

Female leaders

And watch out! This work will most likely affect your personality. Your engagement as a Playmaker has the potential to change you to become a more organized and responsible being. Something you can later use in other aspects of life.

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If you already see yourself as organized and responsible, you may use GAME to gain leadership experience and become even sharper. In fact a survey from last year shows, that 7 out of 10 (of the Playmakers, red.) believe that they could have a future political career if they decided to. With only 3 % female politicians in Lebanon, you are part of the solution. You are this country’s next generation of leaders. Whether it will be in your own community together with GAME or at a national level at a later stage.

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I’m looking forward to a great day together with you. Let’s meet some new people and have some fun!

[ In 2017 the Playmakers are part of the project Youth-led Street Sport for All funded by The European Union and MS:ActionAid ]

When there is no public space for play

We all know it. Physical exercise is a game changer when it comes to “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body. It makes you happy and lets you live longer and better lifes with less illness. But what to do, when there are no places for exercise and play?

Last year my wife, three kids, and I left our healthy and wealthy Scandinavian comfort zone and moved to Lebanon. Because we wanted to do our part in unfolding the potentials in this fragile country torn by war and conflict. We knew that things were going to be different. We knew that the country was heavily burdened with as much as 25 % of the population being refugees – primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. We also knew that stable and unlimited internet, 24 hours electrical power, and the luxury of always having running water in the tap was being left behind.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the struggle we had to fight to stay physically active. The reasons are many. Back in Copenhagen we didn’t own a car because biking around the city was the quickest and healthiest way to get around. In a city like Beirut with its heavy traffic and no bike lanes, this is not an option. Going to a gym will cost you 120-150 USD per month per person, which is a bit steep when you are a family of five. And then there is the public spaces. Who doesn’t like to play ball in the park or go for a run? The problem is that public space comprise only 2 % of the cities in the Middle East, compared to 12 % in average European cities. And in Beirut it’s down to 0.5 % (The Economist, 2016).

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Shrinking public space in Beirut: The cars have taken a bite of the green.

Can you break a sweat on 0.5 % of the city’s space? Yes, of course. But only if you get access. And access seems to be the problem. Lebanon has a thing for fences. The biggest park in both Beirut and Tripoli (second largest city in Lebanon) are fenced in and only open on weekends. WHO recommends 60 minutes of physical activity for children. Not just on weekends, but each day. How do you honor that, when the park is closed five days a week and when many of the other public gardens are bushes, benches, and desolated fountains? The fact that in the recently renovated Sanaya Park children are not allowed to run on the playground, doesn’t make it easy either.

What’s missing are accessible public spaces, where people can meet and practice their right to the city. Signe Lund Brandis – a former intern at GAME Lebanon – has recently shown this in her master thesis “Public Space in Beirut”. In Beirut it is not necessarily ownership that enables or limits the usage of space, as Brandis makes evident. The access to the limited spaces owned by the municipality is also key. And the remodeling of these spaces to active zones where citizens can meet across divides is a good place to start if you want to build a stronger and more cohesive population. How are we going to respect each other, if we never meet and interact? And what better place to do so than at a public space through a game of basketball or ping-pong?

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Haddadine in Tripoli, where an old fountain will soon be turned into a miniature recreational park. Stay tuned.

The good news are, that both in Beirut and Tripoli the municipalities have opened their eyes and are now trying to re-invent what public spaces can look like. From using old abandoned buildings for street sports in Beirut, to opening up the legendary Fair in Tripoli – a never completed masterpiece by the world renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer – for basketball tournaments. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than a few hundred square meters to make public space, where children and youth can meet to play sports and socialize. Out of the many projects the non-profit GAME Lebanon has engaged in to create more opportunities for play, one of my favorites is a small pocket park in Tripoli that UN-Habitat has invited GAME Lebanon to help design and activate. The project will turn an fenced-in desolated fountain into a mini-football and ping-pong arena as well as a safe place where the women of the neighborhood can meet outside the home.

And this is exactly the point. We can change and shape the cities the way we want them. Cities are human creations and supposedly the epitome of civilization. But if they are unhealthy and without safe places for interactions with fellow citizens, how civilized are they then? Let’s create liveable cities with more public spaces for play.

Løsningen på vores krise hedder integration

Danmark er i krig og EU er i krise. Og i går blev trepartsforhandlingerne, som skal sikre bedre integration på arbejdsmarkedet skudt i gang. Heldigvis, fristes man til at sige. Hvad mange overser er nemlig, at de mange flygtninge, som krigen i Syrien forårsager, kan vise sig at være løsningen på EU og Danmarks krise. I modsætning til det altoverskyggende fokus i størstedelen af de nationale medier, er den demografiske krise Europa står overfor i det 21’ende århundrede en langt større trussel mod vores velfærd end flygtningekrisen. Hvis vi formår at skabe god integration og se de nytilkomne som ressourcer frem for problemer, kan flygtningekrisen tilføre os de hoveder og hænder, som vi ved vi kommer til at mangle om ikke så mange år. Dermed kan den ene krise hjælpe os med at overkomme den anden.

Med vildledninger i Libanesiske aviser, er Danmark gået langt for at begrænse antallet af asylsøgere. Medierne har været hurtige til at tage begrebet “flygtningestrøm” til sig, selvom de omkring 15.000 personer, der har søgt om asyl i 2015 reelt kun udgør en kvart procent af befolkningen. Med finurlige krumspring og uhørt hastebehandling af lovforslag, har man forsøgt at bøje reglerne, så Danmark i dag næppe lever op til de internationale konventioner. Noget der for ganske få år siden var helt utænkeligt. I dag er det nærmest blevet normen blandt Danmarks tre største partier at skubbe til grænsen. Det anses ikke længere som uhørt at gå imod vedtagne internationale konventioner og ej heller pinligt, når EU og FN retter deres kritik mod os. Dette har både Dansk Institut for Menneskerettigheder og ombudsmanden tydeligt gjort opmærksom på ved flere lejligheder. Derudover vælger regeringen trods kritik, at placere flygtninge og asylansøgere under forhold og på steder, som direkte modvirker integration. Det fremstår som om, at man fra politisk side decideret ønsker at forhindre en integration. En integration, som skændslen i Køln ved indgangen til det nye år kun har understreget vigtigheden af.

En historisk chance
Med den aktuelle politik forspilder vi en historisk chance for at skabe udvikling og stabilitet – i nærområderne, men også herhjemme. Danmark og resten af EU står nemlig over for en langt mere grundlæggende krise. Kigger man på vores fødselsrater skal vi helt tilbage til 1960’erne for at vi som danskere har været i stand til at reproducere os selv. Denne demografiske udvikling betyder, at der om 50 år vil være halvt så mange i den arbejdsdygtige alder, til at sørge for hver person over 65 år. Dette vil få voldsomme konsekvenser for hele vores velfærdssamfund, hvis ikke vi handler i tide. Og her er det smukke, at hvis vi formår at integrere de mange nytilkomne mennesker, som har forladt deres hjemland, for at søge sikkerhed i Danmark, vil vi kunne skabe en lysere fremtid for både dem og os.

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Foto: Daniel Hjorth

Integrationen sker ikke af sig selv, men kræver en målrettet indsats for at lykkes. Og selvfølgelig er der grænser for hvor stor en mængde vi kan optage. I integrationsdebatten har fokus den seneste tid særligt været på arbejdsmarkedet, men ingen sektor kan alene løfte denne opgave. For at få integrationen til at lykkes, så de nytilkomne kan blive en ressource og ikke en byrde for staten, skal vi udnytte civilsamfundets evne til at bygge bro langt bedre. Og her har idrætten noget særligt at tilbyde. Her kan børn og unge mødes på tværs af sprog, religion og etnicitet for at spille, konkurrere og svede sammen. Ved at indgå i et kropsligt fællesskab bliver fokus flyttet fra forskellighederne til den fælles passion for at spille fodbold eller stå på skateboard.

I GAME har vi haft fornøjelsen af at se, hvordan ressourcestærke minoritetsunge fra ressourcesvage boligområder med en lille smule hjælp, har været i stand til at løfte deres lokalområde. En af dem er Alireza Lavasani, der 2 år gammel landede på den jyske vestkyst som flygtning fra Iran. Gennem dansen lykkedes det ham, at opbygge et community af ligesindede, som ikke havde råd til dyre kontingenter, men som brændte for den dans de via videoer på YouTube fandt inspiration i. Hans vedholdende indsats har Esbjerg Kommune sammen med en række private fonde valgt at støtte op omkring. I sidste måned kulminerede det med borgmesterens åbning af GAME Streetmekka Esbjerg. I den nyåbnede idrætsfacilitet, vil Alireza og andre lokale ildsjæle med gadeidrætten som redskab skabe lettilgængelige, fleksible og inkluderende fællesskaber på tværs af etnicitet for byens børn og unge. Huset har fået en flyvende start og har efter blot en måned rundet de første 900 medlemmer.

Hvis vi ser de nytilkomne som ressourcer og hvis vi får samfundets forskellige sektorer til målrettet at sætte ind med de tiltag, vi i dag ved virker, vil vi kunne lykkes. Vi vil kunne fortsætte traditionen for at udvikle vores kultur samtidig med, at vi holder fast i centrale principper som demokrati, menneskerettigheder, religions- og ytringsfrihed. Det vil dog kræve et visionært politisk lederskab frem for et drevet af frygt. Et lederskab, som overholder vores internationale forpligtelser og som helhjertet går ind i arbejdet for at skabe god integration.

Asfalt-perlen åbner

P1020027På onsdag i næste uge, åbner denne asfalt-perle i Esbjerg. Vi er nogle, som glæder os ufatteligt meget til at tage det nye flotte GAME Streetmekka Esbjerg i brug. Ikke mindst Esbjergs mange asfaltafhængige børn og unge, som har ventet i spænding i over to år siden workshoppen en kold vinterdag i slutningen 2013. Her blev ønsker og forventninger til den nye state-of-the-art gadeidrætsfacilitet bygget i LEGO og udtrykt som SMS-lyrik.

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I dag står det hele funklende klar til brug. Og ja, det alt overskyggende ønske om en betonbowl er blevet hørt, så Esbjerg kan blive endnu et stop på den skateboard-marguritrute som begynder at tegne sig med Multiparken i Helsingør, Fælledparken i København, Street Dome i Haderslev, etc.

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Derudover byder GAME Streetmekka Esbjerg også på lækre rammer og rum til streetdance, parkour, streetsoccer, streetbasket, graffiti, udhæng og meget mere.

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High five til EFFEKT Arkitekter, som har tegnet et fantastisk hus langt over hvad man kunne forvente. Til Vestbyg som har bygget i kvalitet og med tidsplan der holder. Og til Esbjerg Kommune, som sammen med Realdania, TrygFonden, Nordea-fonden og Claus Sørensen Fonden som har finansieret. Og til alle andre involverede, særligt Jannie Mai Vesti og Mikkel Gjelstrup fra GAME (se billedet).

Pst … hvis du har lyst til at kigge forbi, så går det hele ned på Nørrebrogade 1 C i Esbjerg, onsdag 6. januar 2016 kl. 14-16 med borgmestertale og fuld udblæsning. Officielt skal man være inviteret, men hvis du er gade, så kigger du forbi anyways. Vi ses!