How sport and creativity is giving Gaza’s youth a vital release

Wriiten for - January 2021 - Night has already fallen in Gaza City when the lights of a car coming over illuminate the darkness of the city, revealing the shapes of two skateboarders coming towards my direction. They both live in ‘Shati’, a wide refugee camp area on the city outskirts by the beach, which hosts over 85.628 people in an area of only 0.52 square kilometres: one of the areas most densely populated in the world. Their families are already waiting for them to return home, but tonight is a special night, the Italian friends have arrived in town, so they will stay out a bit longer. Roger and Nas, 24 and 18 years old, have been welcoming a group of young activists from Milan since the beginning, 5 years ago. Backed by the Italian NGO ACS, which works on cultural and infrastructural project in the strip, they entered Gaza with radical ideas: building up a skatepark for the youth, recording music with local rappers, discussing feminist theories with women’s groups, cooperating with local artists, etc. Before the pandemic they had came several times working on these projects and organising the ‘Gaza Freestyle Festival’. Roger, Nas and a big group of other people with passion for music, dance, art, sport and skateboard, happily jumped on the project.The cultural impact of the initiative has been impressive. ’Skateboarding makes me feel I belong to nowhere’ Nas told me one day at his home, sitting on the sofa, surrounded by artworks done by his father Abdul-Atif. ‘My mother passed away a while ago and we live here together with my two brothers’ he tells me. Nas has never stepped out of Gaza city, not even to the nearby city of Khan Yunis, yet on the wall of his house he wrote with a pencil a few phrases, one of them is: ‘I want to travel’. His affectionate father tells me about the accident that almost took away his life, some years before, just a few meters outside the house. ‘He was playing with friend when we heard a sudden explosion. When Nas woke up some weeks at the hospital some weeks later he was shocked to learn that eleven of them were killed by the blast. Everyday he happens to meet the parents of those children: ‘it’s like being a son for all of them’ Nas tells me, when walking around ‘Shati’ camp. ‘All of these people have suffered the loss of a loved ones. It’s the life in Gaza. There is no life in Gaza’. The following day we join some other friends at the skatepark of Gaza City’s harbour. Some are doing rollerblades, some are doing parkour, while the Italian group is working at the construction of the ramp. ‘Look at that small boy: Yasser!’ Nas tells me. ‘He is 10 years old and he comes to skate everyday. Before he had nothing to do. Now he is investing all his energies and passion and returns home every evening satisfied. And look at Roger’ Nas continues. ‘That guy is free in his mind. He doesn’t care about what people think. Conservatives judge him for his ‘Western’ style but he doesn’t mind the way what people wants him to be. This boy inspired me a lot after I recovered from the accident. I started to see life in another way, he became my best-friend’ Nas tells me. Some time later Roger is sitting alone watching videos of skaters in California on his phone. He looks much disconnected from everything else. ‘I don’t wanna stay in Gaza. I will come to Italy’ he tells me when I join him. Nas is already aware of his plan: ‘he has already a visa for Egypt’ he would tell him some time later. ‘He will go on his journey and it won’t be me to stop him’. ‘What can we do in Gaza? There is nothing to do’ Roger tells me. Of the almost two million people inhabiting the strip, the 75% of them is under the age of 25: a very young society, with very little or none professional opportunities and no idea of the future. ‘I won’t even tell my mum that I am gonna leave’ Roger continues. ‘Here they have been telling us to go to the border, to the the great march of Return, so Hamas can blame Israel of being bloody murderers. People die and get injured for no reasons. This is really not for me’ Roger says. Almost two hundred people were killed only during the first year of the protests, almost 30 thousand wounded, few hundreds have lost a limb. ‘Have you heard about that young cyclist, Alaa? He was injured too during the protests’ Roger adds. He is talking about Alaa al-Dali, a sprinter from Rafah, gold medal winner at the National Cycling Championship in 2018. I meet Alaa some days later at the ‘Artificial Limbs & Polio Centre (ALPC)’ in Gaza City, where amputated people come to train their prosthetics legs. Alaa’s dream of competing internationally was broken with the refusal of his visa for the Jakarta’s 2018 Asian games. ‘A few weeks later I cycled to the border to the great march of return’ he tells me. ‘I went with my cycling kit to express my frustration of being denied as an athlete, demanding my rights as everyone else in the world’. That day Alaa was shot at the leg by a sniper, as he stood with his bike a few hundred meters away from the fence. The bullet almost disintegrated the bone of his leg, damaging the muscle, arteries and veins. He almost got a hypovolemic shock due to the loss of blood pressure and he had to renounce to his leg to have his life saved. Nas and Roger have heard a lot about Alaa and they consider him a national hero. The doctors were impressed by his fast recovery and by the strength of his body. A few days later we met again in Rafah, while he was cycling with Nedal Shaloof and Ayman Zoroub, two of his team-mates, on the bumpy roads of Gaza, the longest is of just 35km. On the bike with just one leg, Alaa continues to train, waiting to have the right prosthetics leg to be able to perform. ‘If I cannot go to the Olympics, I will go to the Paralympics’ he says smiling. ‘I am determined about it’. Many ideas circulates in him mind. In Gaza there isn’t any para-cycling team, so he is now trying to create one, finding other injured people interested in being part of cycling team. He could be the trainer of this team: that’s the latest idea he is cultivating with the support of local and international team.In Gaza there are other Paralympics teams, with people who either have natural disabilities or were injured because of the wars and the border’s protests. There are the basketball teams and the team of karate and judo for the blind, trained by Hasan Al-Ray, as well as the football team with players who lost a limb. ‘All of these people have great benefit in practicing sport’ tells me Alaa. ‘Doing sport is the best way to recover physical and psychological strength’. Despite the great efforts of all of these sport teams, the possibilities of competing outside are very limited for all of them. Israel in most of the cases is not allowing people to exit Gaza. Despite the several invitations therefore that Alaa, the team parkour, the basketball team in wheelchairs and the baseball female team receive from abroad, it’s always very hard for people in Gaza to leave the strip, even before the pandemic. To confirm it is Jumana Shahin, 24 years old, the first female baseball player in the Gaza, who has been dreaming for years about traveling abroad with her team, a possibility that was always denied. Jumana, who works occasionally as a freelance translator and stringer, hardly deals with the frustration sometimes of not being able to see her visions materialise. ‘It’s so hard to have a normal happy life in Gaza. I’ve studied all of my life and I can’t do what I am prepared for’ she tells me on the side of baseball field. ‘That’s why playing in a team is important for all us. It gives us unity and strength to persist in our daily struggles’. Thanks to her commitment she was selected as ‘ambassador of Gaza’ but was denied to participate to the award ceremony in Cairo. ‘They are afraid that if we travel outside we won’t come back. In fact, many people have done it before, but personally, I would just like to see how life is out of here’.It was a very different world when I met all these people in Gaza. The impossibility of traveling outside of our own borders, which is the everyday reality of the people in the strip, is easier to understand today, after most of us have experienced isolation at home, most likely a more comfortable one. There has been a rapid increase in coronavirus infection in the last months of last year severely affecting the health care system, which is unable to meet the needs of its population after more than a decade of Israeli blockade. Hospitals have fallen short of ventilators, testing kits and personal protective equipment because of the imposed restrictions of medical supplies reaching Gaza. Jumana, Nas, and most of Gaza’s youngsters are staying most of the time at home these days. Roger in the meantime has left Gaza and he is in the island of Samos, in Greece, with the same intention to reach Italy. Some months ago we met in Istanbul. He was living on a shared flat with other twelve migrants on the outskirts of the Turkish megalopolis. We went for a walk together and we stumble across an exhibition called ‘Anthropocene’, portraying the environmental impact caused by humans around the world. I am not sure Roger had really an idea of what it was all about. ‘I guess they are trying to describe how wrecked is our world today’ Roger said. ‘Do you think they’ve been to Gaza yet?’

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