Life was not always easy for Youth Unstoppable Leen as she grew up in the Burj Barajneh camp, one of 12 settlements for Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
The camp, which is situated in the Burj Barajneh suburb in south Beirut, was established in 1949 to accommodate refugees who arrived in the city.
Originally home to 3,500 Palestinian refugees, the population of the one-square kilometre camp has increased significantly in the intervening 72 years. According to Unicef, more than 40,000 people now live there.
“I’d say medium, in the middle,” Leen told World Rugby, when asked to describe life in Burj Barajneh.
“Sometimes it was good, sometimes it wasn’t.
“It makes things different at some points because, you know, Lebanese and Palestinians are not equal in this country in some type of ways, like job and career-wise for my dad.”
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the more than 479,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon cannot work in as many as 39 professions and are prohibited from owning property.
It is understandable, therefore, that Leen was attracted to rugby by the community that it offered, the values that it taught and the outlet it provided from the stress and anxiety of her everyday life.
“I feel so energetic when I play,” Leen said. “Everything you are thinking about is about the game, you don't think outside of it.
“You put everything you have into it when you play, you feel the energy, you feel the passion, the everything.”
“I fell in love with rugby”
The 18-year-old was introduced to the game during a visit to the school she attended, which is run by UNRWA, by the Palestinian Rugby Federation (PRF) and its president, Rabie El Masri.
“It (rugby) did help me a lot. I love seeing my family being supportive, especially as I'm playing on a Palestinian team, so it means a lot,” Leen said.
“Our coach came by to our school – our school is for Palestinians – so he came by, he didn't say much, it was like kind of a surprise. He said: ‘We have a new sport; anybody want to join?’
“So, I said: ‘Yeah, why not for the experience?’ And, then I started going to training and I fell in love with rugby.
“It’s an amazing sport, I love it so much, the sport itself and the way we play it.
“Basically, [I love] the atmosphere, the feeling and the obvious things, the rules, the companionship and this type of stuff.”
Like Leen, El Masri is a Palestinian refugee who was born and brought up in Lebanon, although he lived outside of the camps, as approximately 55 per cent of the diaspora do.
He had suffered from discrimination in his youth, being denied the opportunity to play basketball to a high level as he did not possess a Lebanese passport.
Following a period in France, in which he completed a master’s degree in sports organisation management, El Masri returned to Lebanon determined to help Palestinian refugees through rugby.
He set up the PRF in 2009 and began visiting UNRWA schools, such as the one Leen attended, in the hope that it could help the students deal with life in the camp by encouraging exercise and interaction with other children.
“Rugby is a game that has values,” El Masri said. “And that’s what they needed, these guys living in a society with not a lot of values.”
Following in famous footsteps
By the time that Leen came into contact with rugby, the PRF was running two programmes for young women and girls, one in Beirut and another in the south of Lebanon.
Her commitment to her new passion was such that when training in Beirut became irregular, she would travel with El Masri and the PRF coaches to the south of the country to play with the other team.
“She is a girl that’s very excited, she wants to learn,” El Masri added. “She is really motivated to learn the game.”
Although she plays as a prop, a position she says makes her feel like a leader, Leen’s favourite player is Olympic gold medal-winning Black Ferns winger, Stacey Fluhler.
“I admire her,” Leen said. “I follow her on Instagram, so I see everything she has accomplished so far and she's really a role model for me.
“I have seen what she has done so far, how she plays. She's really a unique person and I love her both as a player and as a person.”
Fluhler was one of the original Unstoppables, during World Rugby’s ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign in 2019, and so following in the footsteps of her idol is particularly special for Leen.
“I can’t even believe that I am in this position,” she said.
“I didn't believe it at first. Like, why me from all the players? I was so happy, so proud of myself and I’m still in shock to be able to show people I’m in this campaign.”
Leen hopes to be able to use the campaign to build rugby’s profile in both Lebanon and Palestine, while learning from the experiences of her fellow Youth Unstoppable ambassadors.
She has recently started a computer science degree at Rafik Hariri University and intends to use that to design a website, and potentially a video game, that promotes rugby.
“I hope probably to be a coach,” she said. “I'd love to teach like fellow Palestinians the sport and present it more and make more people fall in love with it.
“So, I would hope to be a coach soon.”
What would she say to anyone who might want to pick up a rugby ball having read her story? “My advice would be to take it slow at first,” Leen said.
“Feel the spirit, feel the energy the team gives and try your best, come to training and try to enjoy it. It is a sport, it is a competition, but you need to enjoy it.”
The daughter of a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Leen grew up in the Burj Barajneh camp in the south of Beirut, home to more than 40,000 Palestinian refugees.
Leen was introduced to rugby at school, when the Palestine Rugby Federation (PRF) and its president, Rabie El Masri visited.
The game has helped the 18-year-old to cope with stress and anxiety and has provided her with a community of like-minded team-mates.
“I feel so energetic when I play,” Leen, whose favourite player is New Zealand’s Olympic gold medallist Stacey Fluhler, said. “Everything you are thinking about is about the game, you don't think outside of it.”
Leen, who plays as a prop, has dedicated herself to rugby, practising skills, learning its laws and values, and encouraging other young women and girls to pick up an oval ball.
Her love of the game is such that she has often travelled with El Masri and PRF coaches to south Lebanon just to join in training.
Leen, who turned 18 on 1 December, has recently started a computer science degree at Rafik Hariri University and hopes to use it to help spread awareness of rugby throughout Lebanon and Palestine. She is also keen to become a coach.