Hoops and Harmony: How PeacePlayers is Changing the Middle East

From ESPN.com by Chad Ford.

In this old, dusty village, two cousins -- Ghassan and Samer Alayan -- wearing sweat-drenched PeacePlayers International shirts sit and talk about the history of Beit Safafa. They speak of resistance and cooperation, roots and exile, the joy and the despair of everyone, on both sides, who chooses to live in this place. Both have just spent the past week running coexistence and leadership basketball camps in Israel and the West Bank.

Ghassan's father ambles up the stairs and joins the conversation.

He looks at the PeacePlayers shirts with a furrowed brow.

"This word 'peace,' " he says, pointing to the shirts. "We [Palestinians] hate this word. Peace, peace, everyone always comes talking about peace. You know the problem with this word? Everyone talks about peace. No one does peace. We are tired of hearing a word that is not real."

In August, I spent a week in Israel and the West Bank following up with a program that we covered last year: PeacePlayers International (formerly Playing for Peace). PeacePlayers is a program that, through the game of basketball, brings together young people living in communities of conflict.

Here, the main activity of PeacePlayers is the Twinned Basketball Clubs, a program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth on a weekly basis. The youth participate in basketball, life skills and leadership training, in addition to activities that facilitate intergroup relations and dialogue. Ideally, children begin the program at age 10 and continue until age 16, when they have a chance to become coaches and role models for the youth in their communities.

While PeacePlayers has created deep roots in Northern Ireland and South Africa, the Middle East poses unique challenges that make it harder to measure success. Still, PeacePlayers is experiencing tremendous growth in the Middle East, having worked with more than 2,000 youth. Last year, 600 children enrolled in its yearlong program, with some 40 local coaches employed and 15 interns trained.

The following are the stories of the dedicated volunteers in the region who are planting those seeds. They range from the general manager (R. C. Buford, Spurs General Manager) of the NBA champs to a former Israeli solider (Yoav Shapiro) who once raised tigers in Thailand to a 13-year-old Jericho girl who made a splash this summer in North Carolina when she was named to an All-Star team of 16- and 17-year-olds.

Each one, in his or her own way, is taking the sport of basketball and using it as a tool for peace.


While serving in the army can harden a soldier's view, it had a different effect on Yoav. "I had many chances to kill them, but I couldn't do it," he says with a pained expression. His reddhish hair is in dreadlocks, his facial hair a Fu Manchu.

"I would see them taunting us, and it made me angry. But then, after while, I began to understand why he hates us. We destroyed his neighborhood. We took his things from his house. We mistreated him at the checkpoints. Everyone, Israelis and Arabs, were behaving the wrong way."


Later, Yoav was a camp counselor working with 10 Israeli and Arab children at the basketball camp.

The first day was rocky. By Day 2, things began to change. After a night of movie-watching and swimming, and with competitive games on the line, the kids were starting to get along.

As the camp prepares to end, an ecstatic Yoav is bouncing around the gym. "Can you believe this? They are playing together. Passing to each other. High-fiving! If you had asked me if this was possible yesterday, I would say it was impossible. Today, everything is possible."

That evening, Yoav commits to working in the program in Jerusalem for the entire year.

"I'm not sure I was ready for this when I came," he says in a subdued voice later that night. "My family doesn't like Arab people. I didn't like them either.

"But when you see things like this, it causes you to re-examine your assumptions. Maybe I do believe that peace can still come. Maybe the problem is, we just don't know the way. Seeing basketball used like this makes me think that maybe there's a way."

During an adidas Streetball tournament in 1997 in Jerusalem, Ghassan's team made it to the semifinals. They lost in the semifinals, but the difficult conditions won him and his team a few admirers. Even though some fans wanted him dead, Israeli players congratulated him and his team for their play. (Ghassan Alayan, Palestinian Player and PeacePlayers Coach)

"Playing basketball, for the first time in my life, brought me some respect," Ghassan says. "I didn't forget this."

Ghassan admits that the basketball part of PeacePlayers is more important to him than the peace part -- a common reality for many of the participants.

This means PeacePlayers is preaching not only to the converted, the liberal, the open-minded children who already want peace. PeacePlayers is engaging coaches and children who might not initially be open to integration or conciliation. As a general rule, "encounter programs" suffer because the participants are self-selected to fit the program. The fact that PeacePlayers overcomes this hurdle attests to the power of sport to bring together people who otherwise would not be open to meeting and interacting with each other.

Still, given the circumstances, Ghassan remains skeptical that peace can be made via basketball or anything else.

He notes the disparities between the two groups still serve as a wall. Most of the Israeli kids play in new, air-conditioned gyms. Only two such gyms exist for Arabs in the country. The Arab kids almost always have to travel to the Israeli towns when the teams mix. The Israeli parents won't allow their kids to visit the Arab areas -- which leads to less understanding among the Israeli players about the conditions that many Palestinians face.


Despite the problems in making peace in the region, Ghassan has noticed changes in his kids, the Israeli kids and himself since starting the program.

"I think we've learned respect for each other through the game," he says. "This conflict is about a lot of things, but clearly a lack of respect is at the heart of it. If this program builds even a little of that, I've seen what it can do."

"PeacePlayers is a great opportunity to be around kids using basketball to bridge damaged relationships in areas that need some good things to happen," Buford says.

As the GM for the Spurs, Buford is known as a guy who can see the big picture. From the sound of things, that trait has helped PeacePlayers.

"Basketball is a game where all five players need to share the ball," Buford says. "If it is played with great teamwork, the sum of the parts is greater than the individual. It's a great forum for building trust. A lot of the game happens with things you can't see. Communication and trust with teammates is the key. It seems to me that the same can be said of peacemaking."

Buford's support of PeacePlayers isn't the only area in which he has given kids a chance. ..

Khaled took the role of mentor to many of the younger players in the camp. He made sure everyone's needs were taken care of and even earned a nickname: Coach Khaled.

Khaled's leadership during the camp illustrated one of the PeacePlayers ideas that makes the program sustainable -- making mentors and coaches of the older players in the program.

With several others, Khaled will pilot the new Leadership Development program this fall.

Another success story is PeacePlayers' new girls' program. The girls' program was launched last September as a partnership with the Jerusalem Girl's Basketball League. PeacePlayers' involvement signified the first time Arab girls were included in the league. With the support of coaches like Osnat Ginati, an Israeli women's basketball player from Jerusalem, the demand for the program has been enormous.

"I think with girls it's easier," Osnat says. "I think the biggest issue is culture. Many of the Jewish girls from the poorer neighborhoods dress in ways that the Arab girls find immodest. That's been the biggest obstacle."


"I was thinking that Jewish people were cold and didn't like Palestinians," Serene remembers. "But Bar was warm and cared. I think she trusted us, and that was great."

The story of Bar and Serene, says Osnat, has an important effect not only on the kids, but also on the adults.

"I think kids like that, who are willing to open themselves up, despite real danger of being rejected, inspire us all to be better," Osnat says with tears in her eyes. "Some of my family tells me I'm crazy to believe a program like this will ever work. That Arabs will never change. But I see this, and I say to myself, maybe both of us are capable of change."

"You come here with one impression about the place and the people," Sigafoos says. (Sigafoos, Program Director) "But it's totally erased when you're here. The people are better than you'd think. The conflict is more complicated that it appears from the outside. But most of all, you just see a lot of people trying to create a normal life out of an extraordinary situation.

"My work for PeacePlayers has been so rewarding to me personally because of the challenges we face on a daily basis. It's hard to make a difference in the larger context of the conflict. We're not overreaching or deluding ourselves in that way. What we can do, as a small and passionate grassroots organization, is make a real difference in the lives of everyone we work with. PPI is succeeding and creating positive change among our players and coaches because of the talent and passion of the entire PPI staff, especially our local coaches, for change and for a better future."

Enter Samer Alayan, Ghassan's cousin. Not only does Samer now coach three teams for PeacePlayers, a girls' team and two boys' teams, in Beit Sefafa, he also now heads up a new program for PeacePlayers: BasketPal.

The idea behind the program is to strengthen the basketball infrastructure in Palestine. As a Palestinian, he often was embarrassed when playing against Israelis. The lack of formal coaching and facilities often left the Arab teams underprepared. Out of addressing that concern, as well as the difficulty of Palestinian teams traveling to Israel, BasketPal was born.

The program started with seven teams in Tul Karem and two in Jericho, and is expanding to Ramallah and possibly Bethlehem this year. The goal is to spread the program throughout the entire West Bank.

"If the kids can't play, the respect won't come. In fact, the stereotype that Arabs are worthless just increases." Samer says.

Samer has been beating the bushes looking for support, and he's found a lot of it from a local Palestinian company: Hadara Technologies, the Internet service provider arm of PalTel, which provides broadband services to the 7 percent of Palestinian households that have access to the Web.

"For many Palestians, the Internet is the only way to reach the outside world," says Huda Eljack, Hadara's CEO. "They are so trapped, it's difficult for them to get access to new ideas or even entertainment."

"You can't have peace if people don't have jobs," she says, "so we've tried to create as many jobs in Palestine as we can the last few years."

Her support for the program is enthusiastic. "They aren't just creating basketball players," she says. "They are building life skills and gaining role models.

"Programs like this teach kids to deal with each each and connect them in important ways. Finding the right role models in Palestine, with all of the religious and political strife in the region, is very difficult. To have the coaches develop relationships with the kids may be the most important piece of this."

The BasketPal program itself already has produced its first star, a 13-year-old Christian girl from Jericho named Natalie. Natalie might be the best player in the PeacePlayers program, boy or girl, regardless of age, religion or nationality.

Her goal is to make it to the United States and play high school basketball, with an eye toward playing Division I college basketball. She has the potential to do it, and thanks to BasketPal, she might have the chance.

Karen Doubliet (Middle East Managing Director) is one of the few Israelis who can say she actually has spent time on the other side of the wall -- in Tul Karem, Ramallah and Bethlehem -- in any capacity other than as a solider. Now Doubliet, with a strong academic background in conflict resolution, is taking PeacePlayers to new places as well. She has been working furiously as PeacePlayers expands its programs and adds new curriculum to provide better leadership and coexistence training to both the program directors and the coaches.

"I felt I was spending too much time on history when there was a real live conflict in front of my eyes," she says. "I felt a responsibility to contribute to something I can change. It was the beginning of new path for me."

She enrolled in Bar-Ilan University to study conflict management and negotiation.

"Bar-Ilan is a religious university, and I wasn't particularly religious," she says. "But I wanted to see the religious perspective of the conflict. I felt that, in order to totally understand the conflict, you need to understand the narratives of all sides: right and left, religious, and secular. You need to understand the perspectives of your friends and your foes. The program was professional and neutral, but the life experiences of the faculty and students gave me a deeper insight into a new way of thinking about the conflict."

"It is a miracle that we are even bringing Palestinian and Israeli youth together under these circumstances, and creating a forum where coaches from both sides can work together, creating a joint future. There is no doubt that the program has a significant impact on the lives of the children with whom we work -- many of whom would be playing on the street and getting into trouble if it weren't for the program and the positive role models.

"This is a necessary part of the process. Bottom-up peace-building is a gradual process; it's about changing attitudes and opening people's minds to other possibilities. These kids won't create the political agreements that need to be made. But it open minds and prepares them for the peace when it comes. If we impact even a few kids, it may not make peace in and of itself; it's another drop in the bucket. Eventually, we'll have a full bucket."

The success has not gone unnoticed. Adidas's corporate foundation, the Adi Dassler Fund, recently awarded PeacePlayers a significant grant that will support PeacePlayers' programs in the Middle East and New Orleans.

Former President Bill Clinton mentioned PeacePlayers in his newest book, "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World," as a program that can foster communication, cooperation and leadership in the Middle East and around the globe.

The plan is to continue growing, adding a community a year as PeacePlayers receives more financial support.

More from ESPN:

2006 Chad Ford's first report from Israel and Palestine.

ESPN Mag: PeacePlayers making progress in Ireland, too.


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