In Palestine, one organization struggles to keep children playing

 – Gudstory

In Palestine, one organization struggles to keep children playing – Gudstory

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“Now, everything is completely gone,” Tamara Awartani tells me about the after-school programs her organization organizes. Palestine Sports for Life (PSFL) was established in Gaza for young children (especially girls) who did not have access to football or physical education. “I was able to check out one girl in one of our videos… and she was at another youth center taking care of cats… and I said, ‘Oh my God, thank God she’s alive.’ But the other kids, I can’t track them.”

Before the outbreak of violence between Palestine and Israel on October 7, 2023, Awartani says, PSFL had programs in 60 schools in Gaza, with 50 girls in each school participating in after-school activities and learning soccer (soccer for those of us in the world ). United States), because it is not available in their schools. “And we had so many wonderful stories from them, from their experiences and testimonies, Videos . . . But now there is absolutely no perspective, no hope, nothing but the desire to survive.

The importance of sports in development

For young women living in Palestine, even in the best of times, opportunities to exercise were limited, at best. Awartani told Deadspin about her struggle to participate in sports as a girl in the West Bank. Awartani said: “My mother always pushed me to participate in different activities because it was an escape from the situation here.” “(Sports) is a place where you have your own space, where I can be the person I want to be on the field.” Awartani, who was part of the Palestinian swimming and basketball national team, said that unfortunately she was unable to participate in many of the scheduled competitions due to the occupation of the West Bank. “We had movement restrictions. We had limited resources,” she said, explaining that the area where she lived as a child did not have an indoor pool, meaning she had to travel from her home to a pool in East Jerusalem. “But Even when we were 14, we were detained at checkpoints.”

After earning her MBA from university in Jordan, Awartani returned to her native Palestine and became involved in Sports as Development, an international movement that aims to help young women and girls in underserved areas develop confidence, skills and voices through sports. In 2018, I traveled to Pakistan with organizations Women win And Right to play, to learn and report on sport as development, and can attest first-hand to the difference sport makes in the lives of young women, many of whom exist in a culture where women as athletes are a relatively new concept. In Palestine, the need to escape from the reality of life could never be greater. “It is important to involve women in sports, because, as I told you, it was my escape to play,” Awartani said. “It takes your mind off the things going on around you and it also helps you have hope, something to look forward to, helps you not get depressed and have a purpose in life.”

Billie Jean Kings Women’s Sports Foundation reported that “girls and women who exercise have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression” and that girls who exercise have a more positive body image and better psychological well-being than girls and women who do not exercise. Sports. In the short time I spent in Pakistan, the difference that sport made in the lives of young girls was clear. They were louder, less submissive, and took up more space than the other girls. They carried themselves differently. Outwardly they seemed more confident and courageous.

Even before October 7, the political reality of the Israeli occupation served as a barrier to Palestinian children’s participation in organized sports. Awartani recalls being detained at a checkpoint by Israeli soldiers often, which eventually led to her quitting the basketball team she played on. “Sometimes, I ended up arriving at practice within the last 10 minutes,” she recalls. “I only played one season with them when I was at university because I couldn’t keep going back and forth to Jerusalem, it was too much.”

Checkpoints on the way

Awartani wants Westerners to understand the impact of Israeli checkpoints on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, noting that her people don’t just have to pass through checkpoints when traveling from Palestine to Israel. She said that some of the checkpoints are Palestinian. “Within the West Bank, we are talking about moving from one (Palestinian) area to another. Palestinian – Palestinian,” she gestured with her hands. “Sometimes there are settlements on the way, of course, but some checkpoints do not mean that you are moving from a Palestinian era to an Israeli area. It is Palestine for Palestine.”

Recently, Awartani told Deadspin, checkpoints are so unpredictable that many parents are reluctant to let their children pass through them. “A lot depends on the mood of the soldiers,” she said. “We are talking about an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old IDF soldier, an immature person. They are alone.” The world and they probably feel very stressed out because they sit there all day stressed out thinking. . . So they have this already built-in perspective on who’s going through the checkpoint. Awartani explains that soldiers check Palestinian papers, but “sometimes the checkpoint is closed.” You have to wait hours and hours until their mood allows the barrier to be opened. And sometimes they decide to lock it and you have to go back – but it’s not easy to go back because there’s an island in the middle. “So you have to go back to the last (checkpoint) and back, back, back,” she says, shaking her head.

“One time, we played a game in Bethlehem when I was a basketball player and we had to go through a checkpoint,” Awartani recalls. “After that checkpoint, you could either go to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, but we weren’t going there; We only pass to Bethlehem, which is also a Palestinian city. (Israeli army soldiers) decided to throw tear gas on the road. So we were all filled with tear gas in our truck and it was terrible before the basketball game.

Despite all the obstacles she had to overcome, Awartani is determined to provide the same opportunity to other girls in her country. “Perseverance, patience and learning. All of these things are life skills that you gain through playing sports and they help you in your daily life. It helps you with your work and it helps you in school. It helps you with everything.”

The tragedy of refugee camps

In Tulkarm, northern Palestine, the PSFL runs a soccer team for young girls living in a refugee camp. “The situation in the refugee camp is very dangerous, it is very bad,” Awartani says. “The whole infrastructure has been destroyed. When the tanks came in, they took away all the asphalt, and now with all the rain – people are really suffering inside the refugee camp. There’s not a lot of space for people,” she told Deadspin. “And of course, psychologically, it’s difficult Really being in such an intense situation, so being together in that situation and being able to talk about what happened to them, hug each other, support each other, be there for the other girls, knowing what’s going on and making sure they’re able to support (each other) Psychologically it’s really important.

Awartani says many of the girls in the PSFL program are traumatized, especially since a Palestinian boy recently died at the home of one of the girls on the team. In November, IDF forces raided Tulkarm. Eight Palestinians were killed. Awartani says raids in the refugee camp occur every night, which increases residents’ tension. Deadspin reached out to the Israeli Embassy in the United States, the United Nations, and the National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to ask about Awartani’s claims, but neither responded to our emails.

And in Gaza, where there is a non-profit human rights organization Euro-Mediterranean More than 10,000 children were killed in the bombings and more than 24,000 children lost one or both of their parents, Awartani says, and the situation could not be worse. “In Gaza, everything is on track. No schools, no grass, nothing there at all. We have our team, which runs psychosocial activities for children in refugee centres,” she says, telling Deadspin that PSFL organizes activities for about 1,000 children. In every remaining school. “Kids just want to be kids. Kids want to play. The school year has ended, but there are not even schools now. Even if you are not killed by a bomb or a bullet, people are dying of hunger because there is no food, no water, no fuel, nothing.

The audacity of hope

Part of what keeps Awartani focused on sports as development, even in the midst of war, is that she has seen how it impacts the lives of children in PSFL programs. She makes sure that young women get their first shot at programs, but she also speaks about the mission of changing the perspective of young boys, especially in areas where traditions and cultures do not allow girls the opportunity to play. Awartani tells Deadspin that the PSFL created a community soccer team for girls in one area. “The coach, who is also a soccer player, started it with one girl, but then we had 20 boys who wanted to join. We started with the boys from the perspective of changing their mindset towards females – and it was really successful,” says Awartani. “Some of the girls in the program are now leaders.” Young female coaches also train boys, which undoubtedly changes the stereotypes that some boys hold.

Part of the PSFL’s mission is to bring sports to areas where children, boys and girls, do not have much opportunity to participate in recreational activities, and opportunities vary depending on where children live in Palestine. “It is completely different between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Awartani explains. “If you are in a city, you have more opportunities. If you are in a refugee camp, you will have limited options in school,” he said, and even that varies depending on the refugee camp in question. “This is not typical in every region, because every region is surrounded by settlements. So safety is a concern. If you live in a village and want to participate in a youth center in that village, it depends on if it is within walking distance, if it is safe, and if you need to go to a city in the same area, do you have to pass through? Checkpoint? These are all things we should really take into consideration. “There’s nothing standard here.”

However, Awartani has witnessed the positive impact sports as development has on the lives of the children PSFL serves. She told Deadspin that the PSFL was able to take a team of girls to Qatar to participate in the World Cup for Street Children, which Awartani describes as “a world cup for street children or vulnerable children – refugee children,” which was documented in the 2023 film. I am someone, Which is currently showing in the United States. For these girls, Awartani says, this was the first time they were able to travel not only outside the country, but also outside the region in which they lived. “It was a completely different experience for them. The world has opened up to them, everything has been opened up to them by being part of football. They were able to share their culture, learn more about different cultures, and be proud of many things because there were so many different countries. For them to be able to represent the country and the refugee camp, that was big.

“And when they came back, it changed their entire family because they were able to bring that experience back to show their family, their family, and the whole journey through their eyes,” Awartani says. These are life-changing moments.” Awatani says that because of the trip to Qatar, other organizations reached out and offered to teach the girls English, making it possible for them to study abroad one day.

But if the situation remains as it currently is, there is little hope for children in PSFL programmes. “There is no hope of scheduling any matches,” Awartani says. “We hardly go from home to school to work. We are taking it day by day, and we hope that sports will open the door for everyone.”

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