On a rugby union field overlooked by a towering cathedral, a group of young refugees has introduced a small northern French town to cricket.
Saint-Omer lies 40km south of Calais, the main launchpad for attempts by refugees to enter England.
As in many Western European towns and cities, the integration of refugees is creating new challenges.
However, thanks to its new arrivals, Saint-Omer has become a rare center of cricketing excellence in a country where soccer and rugby union dominate.
The town broke new ground last month when a group of Afghan and Pakistani refugees wearing the colors of the Saint-Omer Cricket Club Stars brought home the regional Hauts-de-France Cricket League title.
“I didn’t know people played cricket in France,” said Ataullah Otmankhil, a devotee of the sport from northern Afghanistan.
When the athletic 21-year-old set out from his war-torn country for Europe “on foot, by train, truck, car, you name it,” his heart was set on reaching England.
However, his dreams of starting a new life in the home of Lord’s Cricket Ground came crashing down on the shores of the English Channel.
Day after day for six months he tried to clamber aboard a truck heading across the sea from Calais — to no avail.
When the squalid and sprawling, informal Jungle refugee camp was dismantled in Calais last year, and its occupants relocated around the country, Otmankhil was placed with a host family and began studying to become an electrician.
Picking up a bat again brings back memories of home, he said — a sentiment echoed by his 16-year-old Afghan teammate Oriakhil Shahid.
About 30 refugees, all from either Afghanistan or Pakistan whose ages range from 15 to 32, have joined the club, which has yet to attract any locals among its members.
For Oriakhil, one of the youngest, the club is “like family.”
“It’s for everybody, French, Afghan and others,” he said.
However, the sight of foreigners dashing around the rugby field, bats in hand, has not gladdened the hearts of all in this town of 16,000, situated in the northern heartland of the anti-immigration National Front.
“Sometimes I get insults aimed at me personally or the club,” said Nicolas Rochas, one of a handful of volunteers who is trying to help the migrants integrate.
The pressure to ensure the players are above reproach at all times is acute.
“As a club with young refugees we have an even greater duty to be exemplary on and off the pitch,” he said.
So far the efforts of both volunteers and players appear to be bearing fruit. Less than a year after being created, the club managed to win the regional title giving the players a pass into France’s third division.
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