BEIRUT: Among the loose electric wires and narrow alleyways of Shatila is a tiny chess center, and it’s the only one of its kind among the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The club was first established in 2013 by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Hashem, who said that chess had helped keep a handful of young children off the streets.

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“The kids who come here have lots of trust in this game because they know it will make them stronger,” Hashem told The Daily Star.

Hashem once earned a modest living as a shopkeeper. But as the price of his rent steadily rose, he decided to sell his car and business to open the not-for-profit chess club. While the move was a risk at the time, it has become a blessing for many of his students who have benefitted from the game in more ways than they could have imagined.

According to Hashem, 37 children have become regular students at the center, where he holds classes twice a week.

Fatima, a 12-year-old girl with fair skin and big smile, said that she had met many new friends at the club since she first started coming to the center at the beginning of last year. She also noted that the game had improved her focus significantly, to the point where she’s even concentrating better at school.

“I feel like I’m focusing in English class much more because of chess,” she said, before scurrying off to one of the game boards to compete against her brother. “Mr. Hashem also teaches us about the history of Palestine so that we’ll never forget how we came to Shatila. We always learn something new when coming here [to the center].”

Ali, an 11-year-old boy with crooked teeth and a bright smile, agreed with Fatima, but added that chess has become such an important hobby in his life that he’s even begun playing with his father and brothers at home.

“I keep coming to this center because I know that I can keep developing my mind through chess,” he said, just after finishing a game with his friend. “Mr. Hashem always says that I have to stay off the streets. The streets in Shatila only have bad things waiting for me.” Shatila suffers from extreme poverty and many of the camp’s youth are often recruited by militias and gangs.

Last year, Ali was one of several of Hashem’s students who participated in a chess tournament in Beirut’s Ashrafieh. He won four matches out of six that day, an experience that was vital for Ali to build confidence in a game that he’s grown to love. And like the rest of the players from Shatila who attended the tournament, participating in the competition was in itself a milestone since most had never witnessed life outside of the camp before.

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Nevertheless, the future of the club is now in doubt as Hashem’s savings are beginning to run dry. This is largely because he was paying the bulk of the $275 needed to rent the center – an enormous amount for a Palestinian considering that most live on an average of $6 a day – from his own pocket.

When Hashem realized that he couldn’t afford the costs any longer, he searched for new sources of aid to support his chess center. That’s when he located a Palestinian man on Facebook who has made a comfortable living from selling cigarette and nargileh tobacco in Lebanon.

“I first contacted this man to tell him about what I’m doing in Shatila. He said that he wanted to help us keep it going so he bought me a new place in the camp for our chess club to play in,” Hashem said with a large grin, as he led the way through the camp to show The Daily Star his new center. “He bought it for us for $17,000. We just have to pay for the upkeep so we can use it.”

Affording the repairs, however, hasn’t been an easy task. Hashem said that he’s already taken out a $1,500 loan to begin fixing the broken kitchen tiles, water pipes and electricity in the center. He now just needs $600 more to repaint the walls and repair the bathroom. In any case, he remains optimistic that he’ll be able to put the money together soon. He’s looking forward to continuing what he started once he does.

“I want these kids to keep playing so that they can develop a critical mind,” Hashem insisted, as he stood in the middle of his new center. “I want them to think about each move they make in the game. I want them to think about each move they’ll make in life.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2016, on page 2.
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