This was my second experience on a SOAS Football Beyond Borders project, having been to West Africa last year, but I knew that going to Egypt, Palestine and Jordan would be a very big test for everyone. Drawing on our shared passion for football and for the strong ideals that united us, we all strived to do something positive and genuine for this project.
Of all my experiences in the Middle East, one stands out to me the most. During our stay in the Yafa Cultural Center, located within the Balata Refugee camp in the district of Nablus, we came to meet many interesting people, both young and old. Our days consisted of different activities with the people there, but at least once a day we were able to play either an organized match on a local pitch or an informal pick-up game in the stony alleyways of Balata.
On one cool evening, as the sun was just setting, Sam and I decided to stroll the camp and meet people. Never forgetting to leave without a football, we dribbled along casually, which inevitably led to us into a challenge to play by a group of young Palestinian kids. Sam and I eagerly accepted, splitting ourselves up and letting the boys determine the right balance for teams. One of the boys, definitely not on the shy side, nicked the ball and quickly began the match. Having spent my past summers as youth football coach back in the States, I was inspired by how ‘at home’ I felt just being able to play football amongst kids – though I was slightly discouraged after being nut-megged once or twice.
The meaning that I drew from the experience was inspired by the ability of everyone who was playing to momentarily transcend not only the boundaries between us, but also the sense of plight that overcasts the camp. The children were undoubtedly politically conscious, and I can’t begin to fathom what life must be like living under occupation in a refugee camp, but for what it’s worth, the chance to experience moments of happiness is something not to overlook.
While the political element to the conflict in Palestine and Israel is impossible to avoid, all considerations of conflict and difference seemed distant next to the enjoyment of the game in that moment. In light of the recent turmoil and horrendous violence that has plagued the Middle East, I recognize and accept that some grassroots efforts, such as our recent project, won’t have the necessary impact required to end suffering on the ground. However, one thing that sustains grassroots projects remains true, and that is the need to foster hope and to resist suffering. Embracing humanity and hope is as important as it has ever been, and my experience in the Middle East has only underscored that for me.