Halla Shoaibi stood behind a table overlooking the basketball court at Ramallah’s Sarriyet sports complex. “Ready!” she shouted, setting one minute on the clock overhead. A whistle blows, and a Palestinian teenager takes his mark just beneath the basket shooting as many lay-ups as he can before the horn sounds.
“I believe in using sports and arts as a means of solving conflict,” said Shoaibi, as she takes a break from the action.
Shoaibi and half dozen other local volunteers organized this basketball skills competition, in an attempt to raise money to send a Palestinian football team to the Anti-Racism World Cup in Belfast, Ireland. Comprised of four women and three men between the ages of 18 and 27, the team will spend five days playing football, getting to know the other players and sharing their experiences.
“I think it will be great to meet people from other cultures,” Shoaibi said. “Seeing other youth who came from conflict areas will maybe help us see that even if we have this huge conflict, in a few years, maybe we can have a normal life too.”
Now in its fourth year, the Anti-Racism World Cup was held from 16-18 July at the Donegal Celtic FC stadium in West Belfast.
More than 500 local residents and 100 internationals participated in last year’s tournament, which brings together youth from various conflict and former conflict areas, including Ireland, the Basque Country and now, Palestine.
The idea of putting a Palestinian team together came about when Shoaibi attended a youth forum in Spain on the topic of youth in conflict areas four years ago. There, she met Kevin Hillick, a social justice activist from Northern Ireland.
“We started talking about getting a Palestinian group to Ireland,” Shoaibi recalled. “[Hillick] wanted to make sure there was Palestinian representation.”
According to Shoaibi, the tournament is not only a chance for the players to meet other athletes from around the world and have fun, but it will also be an important opportunity to shatter stereotypes.
“For three days, it’s going to be only sports. But the team will stay for two extra days to meet Irish youth and talk about their experiences,” she explained.
“It will be good to let them know another version of biased news. [We] are normal people who do the same activities as them. It’s a great opportunity for other young people to find out what we actually go through here every day.”
Tamara Awartani is the chairperson and co-founder of Palestine Sports for Life, the organization that organized basketball fundraisers in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus, and other activities to help the team.
She explained that the large turnout at the events (approximately 40 players participated in the Ramallah basketball skills contest) demonstrates just how important having a sports outlet is for Palestinian youth.
“It’s good that we have contests for them. They don’t have anything. Sports is the only thing here where they actually feel free. Once they’re on the court, no on can tell them what to do. It is a way to let their spirit free,” said Awartani, who has played competitive basketball for 11 years in Palestine and Jordan.
She added that the sacrifice many players made to participate — going through at least six checkpoints to get from Nablus to Bethlehem, for instance — is also inspiring.
“[The occupation] has everything to do with it. There are always difficulties, but I feel happy. They are playing what they love. They play with all their heart because it’s all they have,” Awartani said.
According to Shoaibi, the Israeli occupation also made the visa application process extremely difficult for the Palestinian football players.
“We just got the [visas] two days ago. We have our tickets in our hands and we’re looking forward to participating tomorrow,” Shoaibi said over the phone last week, 30 minutes before she and the group departed for Jordan, their first stop on the way to Belfast.
“We’re very excited. At the same time we’re all very exhausted because we’ve been working for this for so long. We’ve been talking with the UK consulate every day. Literally, every day. Now they even know me by voice,” she added, laughing.
Originally from a village called Deir Ghassaneh, 15 minutes from Ramallah, Shoaibi said that despite the long process and various setbacks along the way, she is confident the experience will be a positive one.
“It’s about breaking the stereotypes that people have in their minds. We will be portrayed as normal people, which is what we are.”
Editor’s note: Tamara Awartani’s name was originally misspelled in this article. This version of the article reflects that correction.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a student and freelance journalist based in Montreal. More of her work can be found at jkdamours.wordpress.com.