Ping pong in war-torn Homs: Athletes try to bring sports back to rebel-held Rastan
By Yarub Dali and Justin Clark
HOMS: A sports club in the Homs countryside held the first ping pong tournament since the start of the war last week, as local gyms and athletic club owners try to bring sports back to the war-torn region.
“The participation fee was higher than the prize for the winners, but I decided to play anyways,” says Abdullah al-Homsi, one of the competition’s 26 contestants. “I wanted to get away from the war and feel what it’s like to compete in sports again.”
The competition lasted 4 months—Syrian government airstrikes frequently interrupted the tournament—and took place in the town of Rastan in the rebel-held north Homs countryside.
Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Khattib, head of Rastan’s local sharia court, attended the tournament. “There’s fun and excitement in the air,” he tells the Syrian Voice. “You can see how excited the contestants are to challenge themselves.”
Such events happen rarely, laments al-Khattib. A lack of funding makes organizing competitions difficult for the local council, which is already preoccupied with combating high unemployment, food shortages as a result of the siege, and damage from regime bombings.
“A giant prison”
Rastan was once a wealthy suburb of Homs with strong ties to the Syrian government. After a number of high-profile defections from the Syrian army in July 2011, the city became a stronghold for the opposition.
Since then, heavy fighting between rebels and government forces have left much of the city in rubble. The northern countryside of Homs is under regime siege, making work, food, shelter, and other daily needs scarce and expensive.
Just last week, renewed clashes between the rebels and government forces erupted in the northern countryside of Homs. Regime airstrikes targeted Rastan and other nearby towns, leaving an unknown number of casualties.
Yet just a few days after the chaos cooled down, young athletes were back to playing ping pong in Rastan.
Hasan Abu Abdelkarim is the owner of “Spotlight,” the athletic center that hosted the competition. The entrepreneur, in his late twenties, promoted the idea on social media and asked his regular customers to spread the word in Rastan and the nearby town of Talbisa.
Abdelkarim is proud of the center he’s created—one of the few in the northern Homs countryside. “I originally opened up the center to earn some money and support my family. Now, it’s become a place where young people can gather,” he tells the Syrian Voice.
“Young people had to stop going to university after the war, and now they can’t find work,” says Abdelkarim. “The whole area has turned into a giant prison, and for more than five years young people have gone without recreation or entertainment.”
The war hasn’t stopped some, like former body builder Ali Abu Hadid, from trying to keep sports alive. After the war began, Hadid took his own money and started a gym in Rastan. He took out a loan to buy weights and equipment, but has since been able to pay off all his debts.
Despite his gym’s popularity, Hadid worries about some sports disappearing entirely. When bread, shelter, and staying warm are daily struggles, budgeting time and money for sports is challenging, he tells the Syrian Voice.
Still, Hadid and others are working to make the northern Homs countryside more sports-friendly.
As for “Spotlight” and Abdelkarim, he’s working to arrange chess and billiards tournaments to keep Rastan’s young people busy.
Last week’s tournament was the first since the beginning of the conflict, but Abdelkarim says that it won’t be the last.