PeacePlayers building bridges in divided Middle East
“When I was young, I was … racist,” she said, struggling with her English. “I grew up hating Arabs.”
Sitting in a classroom on a warm afternoon in Jerusalem, 15 young people talked about how they have courageously overcome the historical, angry divide between Palestinians and Israelis in this conflicted region of the world. They’ve been able to do it through basketball, and through the program called PeacePlayers International, which has been using the game to inspire conflict resolution and relationships.
Over two hours, these kids — mostly ages 13 to 19 — shared how they were able to move beyond hatred to develop respect and friendship. In the end, there were few dry eyes in the room.
This was among the many powerful moments during my weeklong trip to Israel with PeacePlayers. A group of 30, largely Americans with impressive backgrounds, participated in basketball programs, group discussion, relationship building and sightseeing. Our ranks included a pioneering sports executive, a police chief of a major city, an NBA general manager, experts in finance and a Harvard professor specializing in negotiations.
The seven-day journey, my first to the region, was a wonderful educational experience. It has helped shape the way I see the world and the complex conflicts of that region, while also increasing my empathy and appreciation for these heroes who are trading years of hatred for respect.
PeacePlayers International was founded by two brothers, Sean and Brendan Tuohey, in 2001. The boys, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and went to Catholic school, saw the potential to use basketball to address areas of conflict around the world. PeacePlayers International Middle East was established in 2005 and operates alongside programs in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and, soon, the United States. Our trip offered an up-close look at its progress and daily challenges.
The efforts are inspiring; the success stories come in small doses, gradually and, of course, over time. But it is also difficult and dangerous, so dangerous that I am choosing not to use names of the participants or specifics around the program for fear of putting anyone in jeopardy.
First Look podcast, with PeacePlayers discussion at the 14:10 mark:
|A PeacePlayers clinic in Jerusalem earlier this month saw teenagers practice basketball and relationship skills.
Basketball is the centerpiece of its success, as clinics bring young children together to learn the game, while also learning about each other.
We took in a clinic or basketball activity practically every day, with many group members participating in the sessions. Make no mistake, the basketball is strong: Players have received solid, fundamental coaching, and have a very good understanding of the game.
At one introductory clinic, a group of Arab children came to play with Jewish kids at a school in the Jerusalem hills on a cool evening during sunset.
Nearly 50 young people were scattered across two courts. Clinics start simply, with a game of tag emphasizing laughter and fun. The children are then divided into groups, with every part of the court being used, and the lessons are a mix of basketball and relationship building. One exercise focused on learning names, and during one drill, the children shout their teammates’ names in encouragement as they dribble up the court. After one team “won” a drill, the sight of a girl lifting up a younger, smaller Arab boy in celebration showed that progress had been made in the first practice.
It’s that type of experience that organizers hope will inspire the children to return — and the early experiences are critical to the program’s success.
Many of the young players talked about the discomfort of going home after their initial practice to tell their parents that they were playing alongside Arabs or Jews, and how many parents were against future clinics.
One Israeli girl said her mother didn’t want her to return and play with Arab children, but she had so much fun at the practice that she wanted to go back. “I had to convince my mother to be open-minded about this,” she said softly.
There was story after story of changing minds and perceptions, of becoming more open-minded, tolerant and understanding. All driven by children.
|For young women in the Middle East, PeacePlayers offers a rare opportunity to play and grow.
One evening, our group was graciously welcomed into the home of an Israeli family, whose child was participating in the program. During that evening, a young Arab and Jewish girl talked happily about how their unlikely friendship developed through PeacePlayers, laughing about “talking every day, and wanting to do everything together.”
Their friendship started through basketball, which led to invitations to dance recitals and Ramadan — rare and even dangerous interactions between the two.
I watched the uneasy comportment of the children’s parents, noticing their unfamiliarity around each other.
A Jewish woman who is a coach in the program brought her parents to the dinner, and it was the first time her mother, who had lived in Jerusalem for more than 20 years, ever said hello or shook the hand of an Arab woman with a hijab.
That’s the essence of PeacePlayers. Here we were, in a region and city full of historic conflicts, and we were seeing brief glimpses of bridging divides. It was a program searching for spaces in a volatile region — in this case a basketball court or a backyard — to bring people together, and view each other not as enemies, but as human beings.
Nearly 50 people sit snugly together in a classroom circle after a lunch of bagels, cheese, hummus, salad and fruit. The only sounds are the stories of the 15 children and their coach, Arabs and Jews, sitting together.
One young Arab girl talked about how relationships at her school became strained after she started in the program, and her teacher telling her it wasn’t “acceptable that she was playing basketball with Israelis.”
One Israeli girl talked about a tense moment in her classroom when her teacher asked, “What is an Arab?” She talked about her experience at PeacePlayers and how she’s learned to be open-minded, an answer that upset many of her longtime friends who ended their relationship.
One young Jewish boy talked about the time he and his friends were lost in a largely Arab area, afraid along their journey, only to be greeted by his PeacePlayers colleague who he saw on the street, and she led him and his group to a more familiar area.
|A true highlight of any trip to Israel is the varied and delicious cuisine.
That constant dynamic can’t be overlooked. Much of the program is done quietly, below radar, with little exposure. The professional, emotional and physical risk that coaches, staff and the young participants are under is real.
And as I looked closely at the children that afternoon, I couldn’t help but realize they are just that — children: Their emotions were cute and joyous, but they also had a hint of fear and worry in their eyes. Because while they are children, they’re not naïve, and they live within the tension that was so palpable during our visit all week.
Our soulful and sweet tour guide had been in Jerusalem for more than 20 years. Sitting in a little restaurant after a lunch of hummus, eggplant and falafel in the Old City, he looked worn down and told me the situation was the worst he had seen in his two decades in the region. He talked about how the Old City was shut down weeks prior to our visit when two policemen were killed. “Things always heat up in the summer,” he said, wearily, and added almost symbolically, “We need more air conditioning.”
That’s the environment this program exists under and it’s that tension that makes it hard for the program to grow.
So where does it go from here?
It must continue to raise funds — the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been a key funder of the program for the past seven years — as well as grow its leadership and participation.
Its first generation of mentors are emerging, people who started six or seven years ago and are now ready to be coaches and staff and teach the next generation.
It’s critical that its participants remain in the program — and there are positive signs. We came to know two families — one Jewish, one Arab — that each have three siblings in the program.
PeacePlayers is a unique outlet for the young to escape the norms of society, especially young women who don’t have many opportunities.
One Israeli girl acknowledged the easy choice would be to live in the “normal community,” to remain in the split status quo. But PeacePlayers exposed her to a different path. “After PeacePlayers came into my life, an entirely new community developed for me.”
It’s also made an indelible impact on the kids.
“It’s a part of me. I live it every day,” one said. Another added, “I don’t think I could live without my friends and what we do here.”
As a group, we left Israel seeing the unique role basketball is playing as an entry point to bring two sides together. Yes, the steps may seem small, but it shouldn’t be overlooked how extraordinary the progress is that they are making. There is a lesson for the diplomats of the world to learn from these young heroes.
Over the week, we saw that human beings born to differences and hatred are capable of friendship and love when given the means to reach each other. Something as simple as a basketball can be that means or bridge.
The young Jewish girl, who admitted to growing up disdaining Arabs, said only a dream would allow her to believe Arab and Jewish children could play together and be friends. But she’s living it now, and admitted it isn’t always fun or easy to mend the divides that exist. “It’s not easy,” she said, seriously. “It’s hard at times. Things come up that make it difficult. But we see that it’s possible and not a dream.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our group hike up Masada ended with a beautiful sunrise over the Dead Sea.