Kicking Soccer Balls While Militias Shoot Kalashnikovs

Nasr Maksoud, director of the local field, says his teams always play to the sounds of gunfire. / Alia Haju for Syria Deeply

"The club administration started being vocal about supporting the revolution, and once that happened, the league downgraded us to Division II," Nour said. Faced with the decision of playing below their skill level or quitting, most players chose the latter.

They still haven't chosen a name for their new Lebanon-based team.

"The Syrian Revolution," says Bilal.

"No!" says Abdel Rahman. "It's about sports, nothing else. Politics and soccer should not mix."

The Misfat club in the Syrian city of Banias is where Abdel Rahman, 22, and his brother Osama, 21, used to play. It's still in operation. But the brothers are stuck in Tripoli.

"I filed for university exemption too late, so I could be drafted into the Syrian army if I go back," says Osama. He fled Syria in the early days of the revolution. "Back in Banias, I couldn't go to the protests near me because the army blocked the road from my village," he says. "But the police came and accused me of being an activist, so I left."

Their parents remain behind in Banias, while the brothers work at a supermarket to pay the 100,000 Lebanese pound ($66) rent for their Tripoli apartment.

Fellow player Ziwar, 23, stands up to leave. Tomorrow, the Hama native starts his final law school exams. It's his last year, and he's hoping to rejoin his family in Syria as soon as possible. "In Lebanon, only citizens can be lawyers, so I have no future here. God willing I will go back to practice in Damascus next year," he says.

While soccer is the men's passion, they know that academics is their future. When not at practice, "We all attend university here," says Nour al-Melli, who studies history.

Syrians pay $700 per year for tuition, while Lebanese pay the in-country fee of $150.

"This year my parents couldn't pay the fees and neither can I, so I have to work. I will go back and finish my degree when our financial situation is better," Nour says.

With the raging war in Syria and deteriorating security in Lebanon, they know that they won't be able to make a living – as they'd once hoped – as professional athletes.

Soccer is an escape from a new life marred by financial concerns. Life in Lebanon is expensive compared to Syria. No longer a student, Nour doesn't have access to discounted university apartments. He pays $100 a month for a bed in a two-bedroom house shared with six other young men. His father, who could once afford his son's fees through his work as a butcher, now barely makes ends meet.

Another player, Omar, says the locals have raised prices significantly since the Syrians began arriving. "An apartment that used to be $200 is now $500 per month," he says. "In the villages people help one another, but in the city they take advantage. But we also have people who are really helping." Next month, one of his friends will open an eight-floor hotel and provide rooms to 100 families rent-free.

"We are like 'Les Miserables' here," he says.

Still, none of the young players have registered as refugees. "I want to wait and see what happens," says Nour.

Ahmed, who is also from Hama, plans to go to work in Beirut when he finishes his law degree. He misses playing in Syria with a normal schedule. "Of course it is better to have an organized team," he says. A little later, he and Osama walk towards the sandy field where they will have a short practice.

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