I’d like to think I’ve spent enough time in conflict zones at this point to have a pretty open mind about the reality of what I’ll experience in a new country as compared to how I’ve seen it portrayed in the media. I always try to enter a new situation as objectively as possible, knowing that preconceptions will only serve to cloud my ability to connect to the people I’ll be working with. That said, I don’t think any amount of traveling experience would have prepared me for ending my first evening in Syria singing along to Extreme’s 90s power ballad, “More Than Words,” with a Syrian driver while weaving through the peaceful streets of Old Damascus. It was the first of many pleasant surprises in my week-and-a-half in one of the world’s most fraught countries, and one that set the tone for what would be a beautiful, fun and truly memorable visit.

Backing up to my previous post, I’d just finished up in Gaza working on amputee football and wheelchair basketball training projects and spent a few days in Beirut, Lebanon working with colleagues planning for the second edition of the Hanna Lahoud International Wheelchair Basketball Cup – the ICRC’s first international sports tournament – which will be held in late September this year. After catching up with friends and colleagues in Lebanon, I was driven across the country’s mountainous eastern border by a Lebanese ICRC driver, handed off to a Syrian counterpart after crossing the border, and taken down the eastern slope into Damascus.

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The crossing from Lebanon into Syria felt surprisingly like  driving through Colorado

My first impression of the Syrian capital was semi-disbelief at how… um… intact it was. Given the intensity of the civil war that has ravaged the country for nearly a decade, I pictured a country in relative shambles. However, Damascus, as I quickly learned, was never truly threatened by the rebel forces opposing the government and – apart from some remnants of years-old mortar strikes – was in remarkably good shape. There are signs everywhere touting Damascus as “The World’s Oldest Capital City” and it has an appropriately significant feel to pair with that slogan. The Old City, which I didn’t get nearly enough chance to explore, was extremely intriguing during the drive through on my first night. The feeling of being connected to the early days of human civilization was powerful and compelling, and was only complimented further when I came out of a gorgeous traditional restaurant that first evening to be greeted by Firoz, an ICRC driver, who took one look at me as I got into the car, pointed to the softly playing radio and said, simply, “Aerosmith.” The next song on the radio was the aforementioned “More than Words,” to which Firoz knew every lyric and beat. Firoz – and Syria – were off to a good start.

I first met the Syrian national team during the inaugural Hanna Lahoud tournament in late 2018 and was impressed by the fact that, though they’d never played together in international competition before and had never received any outside training, they managed to play their way to a second place finish. I was also blow away by their friendliness – as were all the other players in the competition. A Syrian player – Nabih Chabaan – even won the Most Valuable Player award for the tournament, an honor that carried with it a scholarship granting seed funding to help him start his own business. Needless to say, the Syrian wheelchair basketball players made a big impression in their first introduction to the outside world. After seeing their inspiring performance and having nearly all of them come up to me at one point or another during the tournament to ask if I would come to work with them, I knew I needed to find a way to make that happen.

After having been told by colleagues several times previously that Syria was not an optional destination for an American citizen, I assumed that – at least for the near future – it was a place that was going to be off limits to me. However, once I raised the possibility early this year with my colleagues at the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Program in Damascus, they thought I might be able to come if I stayed in the relatively stable confines of the city. After a lot of wrangling with the ministry of foreign affairs by ICRC Syria management, I managed to get a visa and make my first visit – one of the few Americans to be afforded that opportunity these days.

I started the week with two days of classroom sessions for coaches, referees and classifiers – a similar model to those I’ve used previously – and was very happy to see how many attendees joined the course. Between the three disciplines, there were around 35 students, a great number for my first program in the country and a clear sign that there is excellent potential for growth of the sport there.

After the classroom sessions concluded, I finally got to reconnect with the players. Even though it had only been six months since I’d last seen them (12 of the 14 participants in the training camp were the national team players who attended the Lebanon tournament), it was amazing to see their smiles and be welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm. One of the players, Abdul Aziz, was so excited to see me again that he kept repeating a few of the limited number of English words in his vocabulary: “I LOVE YOU!” and “BREAKDANCE!”

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Abdul Aziz

All the players were absolutely wonderful to work with – they were extremely focused, astute students who I can tell with progress very quickly – and we spent equal time going over the finer details of individual and team play as we did laughing uproariously at the constant jokes being thrown around the court. It didn’t matter that we were outside in the hot sun all day – we never stopped having fun.

One player that I wrote briefly about before but who absolutely blew me away at the training camp was Layth Mubayid. Layth is one of the most severely disabled players I’ve ever seen play wheelchair basketball. He is missing both arms from just above the elbows and has extremely short legs that force his feet to sit just past the end of his wheelchair cushion, restricting both his forward movement because of the tension it puts on his hamstrings and keeping him from being able to plant either foot against the footplate of the wheelchair, reducing his balance and control of the chair. I’ve seen players who are missing a sizeable part of one arm and others who may be missing parts of both hands, but never one who was able to play without both hands and both forearms. The thing is, Layth isn’t just playing – he’s playing well.

Layth is just 20 years old, but possesses the gravitas and maturity of someone a decade or two older. He is extremely bright and picked up the increasingly complex concepts I was teaching the group faster than any of his teammates. He also picked up individual physical skills and adapted them to his own limitations without ever complaining or even implying that he wouldn’t be able to do something. On certain drills – like when I taught the team how to shoot reverse layups – he was the most consistent finisher of anyone.

Near the end of the training camp, I staged a timed dribbling competition where I had the players weave through a maze of cones before finishing with a shot at the basket. Below is a video I took of Layth completing the drill almost flawlessly. I’ve watched it dozens of times and still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing.

At times I found myself getting emotional watching Layth play, not just because his is a heartwarming story of inclusion, but because he plays without any sense of difference between himself and his teammates or opponents. His will to succeed transcends any physical impairment and exemplifies the spirit of wheelchair basketball. I realize now that I’ve always mistakenly described individual eligibility for playing international wheelchair basketball as “anyone with a permanent disability affecting his or her lower limbs and with the hand and arm function necessary to catch, shoot, and push a basketball wheelchair.” Layth blew the latter part of that definition completely out of the water – or, more accurately, redefined what is necessary to accomplish those things – and I’m happy to admit how wrong I was in my description (apologies to all the classification students I’ve misinformed over the years!).

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Layth Mubayid

The last two days of the training camp, I spent focusing primarily on teaching the Syrian players the same offensive and defensive strategies I’d worked on with the players in Gaza just two weeks earlier. As I mentioned in the post about Gaza, the mental leap it takes to go from playing basic, relatively individualistic basketball to making multi-step reads based on team offensive and defensive movements is very significant, as is the level of communication required to make such strategies work harmoniously between the five players on the court. It was not easy, but the Syrians were dedicated and managed, after just two sessions, to execute the level of strategic decision-making I was demanding of them at game speed – a truly impressive achievement considering this was the first real training they’ve ever received on the concepts.

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Explaining the finer points of offensive and defensive strategy with the invaluable help of Layla, program organizer and interpreter extraordinaire 

On the final day, we held an exhibition game in the huge gymnasium at the Damascus Center for Sports, attended by a large group of ICRC staff as well as Syrian media. I asked the players and coaches to try their best not to let the mental aspects of the game we’d worked on fall to the wayside in the frenzy of competition and under the lights of the cameras, but I knew from previous experience that it takes much longer – often years – for these types of advancements to become a natural part of the way teams play in a competitive environment.

I was stunned, then, to see that they did exactly what we’d practiced! I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was like watching a completely different team than the one I’d seen in Lebanon – even than the one I’d started coaching just five days earlier. I’m used to players scoring a basket or making a great pass and looking toward me on the sideline for approval. The Syrian players were doing that after setting a fundamentally sound screen and picking out a defender for a 2-on-1 after a jump on the shooter. Yeah, guys!!

I’ve never seen a team take to the cerebral aspects of wheelchair basketball that quickly, and I told the players (and coaches) they should be extremely proud of themselves. If they continue practicing with the intensity of focus they showed during our training camp, the other teams at the Hanna Lahoud tournament are going to have their work cut out for them. I’m excited to see how far they can go in the next few months and can’t wait to see them bring their A game to their second international tournament.

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The exhibition game tips off with Firoz (11) and Murad (9) battling for possession

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Nabil speaks for all the Syrian players when he says he loves wheelchair basketball

I’d like to extend huge thanks to my ICRC colleagues, Coralie and Layla, without whose persistence and dedication this programme never could have happened, as well as to Philip, the Head of the ICRC Delegation in Syria, for making the calls necessary to get me a very last second visa. I also need to thank my old friend and colleague, Prem, with whom I’ve worked multiple times in both Gaza and Ethiopia and who arrived to become the new PRP manager in Syria while I was there, and Dr. Hassan, the ICRC staff doctor. I got pretty sick during a few of the days I was in Damascus, and it was Prem’s and Dr. Hassan’s support that helped me get back out on the court with as little time lost to illness as possible. Thanks everybody! See you all again soon.

This post marks a pair of firsts for my blog, which I’ve now been writing for the better part of eight years. It’s both the first time I’ll be mostly writing about observing another coach running an ICRC-supported sport program and my first post primarily written about a sport other than wheelchair basketball (I’m also posting it over a month late, as my travel schedule has been a bit nuts since leaving on the first of April). I spent a week and a half in early-to-mid April in Gaza with Simon Baker, an amputee football (soccer) coach from Ireland and the general secretary of both the European Amputee Football Federation and World Amputee Football Federation, whom I brought with me to help kick start the fledgling amputee football league that was launched in Gaza in the summer of 2018.

I’ve been experimenting with a few different training models involving deploying other wheelchair basketball coaches and instructors over the past six months – all to very positive results – but Simon is the first coach I’ve engaged to teach a sport outside my personal field of expertise. I first met Simon in September 2016 when he came to Geneva to give a presentation on amputee football to all the managers of the ICRC’s Physical Rehabilitation Program (PRP). He brought a lot of energy and passion to his presentation and, while I didn’t know much about amputee football at the time, I was intrigued by his dedication and recognized a kindred spirit in his stated commitment to spreading the sport as far and wide as he could.

In July 2018, Simon worked with the ICRC MoveAbility Foundation – which focuses on removing barriers for persons with physical disabilities in less-resourced countries not necessarily dealing with war or conflict – to establish an amputee football program in Tanzania. That project had an immediate impact and I heard rave reviews from MoveAbility colleagues about Simon’s training of players, coaches and referees and building of national capacity to establish a sustainable league in Tanzania.

Around the same time, I was in Gaza working on my annual wheelchair basketball training trip when I got an invitation to meet with a newly-formed amputee football team – the first in Palestine. This was during the first few months after the breakout of demonstrations along the border fence between Gaza and Israel, a now more than year-long protest that has (as of April 2019) resulted in over 130 protestors, mostly males in their late teens and early twenties, losing limbs. Even though the numbers of amputees weren’t yet that catastrophic in the summer of 2018, it was clear that the figures would be rising quickly given the severity of wounds that required multiple complicated surgeries. I spoke with my longtime ICRC colleague and friend, Ahmed Mosa – head of the PRP in Gaza – about the prospect of bringing in an international amputee football coach to work with the players there and create an opportunity for all these newly-injured young men to get into sport as soon as possible following their amputations. While wheelchair basketball has grown significantly over the past four years in Gaza and basketball is becoming increasingly popular, football is by far the most loved sport in the region, so it seemed like a great opportunity to create a resource for assisting a large population of new amputees with their recoveries. Ahmed and I reached out to Simon – who was immediately on board to bring his knowledge and experience to Gaza – and started planning a visit for Simon and me to travel together to Gaza to get the program up and running in the spring of 2019.

Coincidentally, on my way to Gaza earlier this month, I had the chance to stop in London to attend the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA’s) EqualGame conference, a gathering of representatives from over 50 countries around Europe and the world focused on finding ways to increase the inclusivity and diversity in football. While I was there listing to motivating presentations over the course of 24 hours, I had the chance to meet and discuss my upcoming project in Gaza with many people in the European football community. Almost every one of them either knew or had heard about Simon Baker and were extremely enthusiastic about what he would bring to the program. It was clear that we’d picked the right man for the job.

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Simon (left) and me with Ahmed Mosa and his wonderful family

Once Simon and I crossed from Israel into Gaza in April, it was off to the races, with just a few days to impart as much knowledge as possible to the initial groups of players (about 80), coaches and referees (about 30 combined). I’ll let Simon describe his first experience coaching in a conflict zone and his impressions of working with the group in Gaza:

“When I was first asked to take part in the ICRC Project Amputee Football: Gaza with Jess and Ahmed, I was of course delighted but also apprehensive, as I did not know what to expect. All I knew about Gaza was what I had seen or read in the media.

My perceptions about one thing were right – it was very hot. But the rest of my impressions were so wrong.

The first day I was to work with referees and coaches on the rules and structure of the sport of amputee football. This would be a long, tedious day as we had a lot to cover and, of course, everything had to be translated into Arabic. I can say I was overwhelmed and surprised by the enthusiasm and the hunger for knowledge from all those attending, though.

The next few days were spent working with the players and coaches from the different regions of Gaza; the training was tough and the days were hot. The players were introduced to a fitness test which involved 6 individual drills, each one designed around the sport and realistic to a game situation. This test will be carried out every month moving forward, enabling each player and his coach to chart the player’s development. Each day’s training lasted around 7 hours, finishing with a small game at the end giving the referees and players a chance to put into practice what they had learnt. I was again blown away by the passion and drive from the players pushing themselves in every task which was put to them.

In all the time I was in Gaza I never heard any player complain, moan or tell me how life was hard for them. All they wanted to do was play football.

I was moved by the kindness and welcome which I received. Over the 7 days, I was treated with the utmost respect. Even when I was pushing the players to their limits, all they wanted to do was impress.

The last day was a test to hold a small tournament between 6 clubs; this would see 15 mini-games played over the course of four hours. It would be a milestone for the programme as it would be the first amputee football competition held in Gaza. I wanted to see how disciplined the players and coaches were in a competitive environment. I wanted to see how the referees took control. I wanted to put all members of the Palestinian Amputee Football Association (PAFA) under pressure to see how they would handle the organizational elements of conducting a tournament. To add even more pressure, all this in happened in front of a large throng of national and international media outlets.

I can say they passed with flying colours! Those watching from the sidelines or on TV first saw amputees on crutches kicking a ball; after a few minutes, once the first-game butterflies passed, they saw true athletes playing football.

The next 6 months will be very important for the development of the new amputee football league in Gaza, with some clear goals, objectives and targets set out for PAFA to take the sport to the next level. I am sure they will exceed all targets and the sport will become very popular in Gaza. I look forward to returning when we will host a 2 day tournament and fill the Gaza football stadium with spectators for a festival of sport.

I was emotional with pride to be part of such an amazing program. I felt honoured to be part of the players’ journey as they lay down the foundations for future athletes.

A lot of work and hours went into making this project possible, including input from the ICRC, PAFA, the European Amputee Football Federation and many more. This and the performance of all the trainees I worked with highlight the truth of a mantra I repeat often: together anything is possible.”

ZR4A0043Simon surveys one of the training sessions in Gaza (photo by Alyona Synenko/ICRC)

ZR4A0791Simon and I watch the players conduct speed and agility tests (photo by Alyona Synenko/ICRC)

Another phrase Simon repeated many times during our days in Gaza was, “It’s not about the disability; it’s about the athletes.” I can say, having watched the mini-tournament from the sidelines, that not one of those 75 players – many of whom had lost their limbs less than a year ago – was thinking for even a moment about their disability. After the first few minutes, neither were the spectators. Everyone was 100 percent focused on football and the beauty and intensity of the games being played that day in Gaza Stadium. Here’s a video prepared by the ICRC on one young player’s story as he prepared for and played in the first amputee football tournament in Gaza.

I think it’s safe to say that our first venture into amputee football got off to an amazing start. Sincere thanks to Simon, Ahmed and everyone else at the ICRC, Ministry of Youth and Sport, PAFA and the Palestinian Paralympic Committee who worked hard to make it happen. This will be a great foundation from which to start other amputee football programs in the coming years.

ZR4A0993The players took their football seriously, but there were still plenty of smiles to go around (photo by Alyona Synenko/ICRC)

ZR4A0236Disabilities disappeared when these players put their minds to accomplishing their athletic goals (photo by Alyona Synenko/ICRC)

While the focus of this post is on amputee football, I can’t finish without at least mentioning wheelchair basketball, especially with exciting things happening on that front in Gaza as well. While Simon was getting the football league up and running, I was working with both a group of potential Gaza Men’s Team basketball players in preparation of what we hope will be their first international competition – the second edition of the ICRC Hanna Lahoud International Wheelchair Basketball Cup, to take place in Beirut in September. It was the first time in two years that I’ve had the opportunity to really dig into wheelchair basketball technique and strategy with the players in Gaza (having focused last year on working with coaches and technical officials), and we made great progress. If all goes to plan, they’ll be ready to show their skills in Beirut this fall.

Still0410_00005This was the first time I’ve had a chance to coach the top wheelchair basketball players from across Gaza in one place.  They worked together seamlessly, as though they’d been playing on the same team for years. (basketball photos by Mohammad Ali/ICRC)

Still0410_00008We worked on more advanced techniques like making multiple consecutive “reads” on offense and defense to make the best possible decision in the heat of the moment

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By the end of the training, the players started thinking and communicating like true professionals

Last but not least, we also inaugurated the brand new wheelchair accessible beach access in Gaza City – the first on the Gaza Strip – which was designed and built by the Peace Club for Persons with Disabilities with support from Humanity and Inclusion over the past year. The new area includes a half basketball court in full view of the beach – intended to show the excitement of wheelchair basketball to all beach-goers in Gaza – as well as a public restaurant (to be staffed entirely by persons with physical disabilities), a covered sea-view area, and fully wheelchair accessible restrooms. All of these will revolutionize the ability of Gaza’s disabled community to access the Mediterranean seaside and take a leap forward in the ongoing effort to stimulate true integration of persons with disabilities into broader society.

IMG_7740[1]On most beaches you can swim, sunbathe or even play volleyball. In Gaza you can ride a camel.

I finally returned home on the 3rd of May after coaching wheelchair basketball in Syria for a week and a half. That post will be coming soon. Stay tuned!

2019 is off to a great start. My first coaching trip of the year was a two week visit in February to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was my first time working in the country, though I had coached two of its players and trained one of its coaches in Ethiopia last November as part of a regional training program. I was excited for the chance to experience another new culture, see a part of the world – Central Africa – that I’d previously only known through books and news stories, and help a wheelchair basketball program in its relative infancy start to take its first steps.

I spent the first week of my stay in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. The city is situated in the west of the DRC on the bank of the Congo River – the world’s deepest and second largest river – directly across the border from Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of the Congo. In terms of area, the DRC is the second largest country in Africa – just slightly smaller than Algeria – and is the 11th largest country in the world. Kinshasa is estimated to have a population of around 13 million people and is the famed site of the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 heavyweight boxing title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (back when the DRC was known as Zaire). Our wheelchair basketball training took place on the campus of the city’s Olympic Stadium, not far from the site of that legendary sporting event.

When I arrived on the first day of training, most of the players were already there, in their basketball chairs, ready to play. This may seem like a normal expectation to some, but I’m not sure I’ve ever started a practice in any country on time, so I was impressed right away. The 20 player group I worked with that first week included an even split of men and women from Kinshasa and Kisangani (a smaller city in the north of the country) and they were all eager to get started. The group included two players – Rosette Luyina and John Mwengani – who had competed as wheelchair racers in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and it was clear right away that, no matter how early the Congolese players were in their development as basketball players, there would be no shortage of athleticism from which to build.

We had an outstanding first three days of training, with the players putting all their energy into learning and perfecting basic individual and group skills. On the fourth day, it had rained hard throughout the night and into the morning. The rain seemed to be subsiding just in time for practice, though, so we all took brooms and squeegees and did our best to clear all the standing water off the court. After about 45 minutes, it was dry enough to play, so everyone started getting in their basketball chairs. At that moment, I looked up and saw that, while the clouds were largely broken in all directions, there was one menacingly dark bank off to the west. I asked one of the coaches which way the weather normally travels in Kinshasa. Naturally, he pointed right to the black cloud. I told everyone to put the wheelchairs back in their storage room as quickly as possible. We started pushing, limping and hobbling across the campus just as the rain started to fall again, all 30 of us (including coaches and referees) gathering under a huge stone staircase on the outside of the stadium just as the skies opened up. We spent the next three hours with me verbally explaining the concepts we were supposed to have learned on the court that day, then opening the impromptu session up to questions from the players. At first no one wanted to ask anything, but once the first player – Rosette the former racer – got the courage to ask one, the floodgates opened and I ended up answering dozens of great questions about all aspects of the game. The rain pounded the stadium above us the entire time, but we made the most of the situation. It was a very special bonding experience for all of us.

Each day, following the conclusion of four hours of on-court practice, I would teach introductory classes for coaches, referees and classifiers. The classroom was the office of the president of the Congolese National Paralympic Committee, Professor Betty, who struck me as the perfect leader for an up-and-coming program like the one in DRC. She’s smart, humble, well connected, and truly cares about the players. She even learned the basics of wheelchair basketball refereeing and classification as one of my classroom students in order to be more closely tied to the sport as it grows across the country; I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever taught a university professor.

One factor that contributed a great deal to the success of both the on-court and classroom trainings was the work of my English-to-French translator, Ken, a 23 year-old who was born in Kinshasa but who spent his late teen years in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he learned to speak fluent English. Ken had played a little basketball in his youth, but was – and continues to be – a very good football (soccer) player and runner. The work he did interpreting for me reawakened his love for basketball, though, and he told me many times that he wanted to stay involved with the wheelchair basketball program as either a coach or an administrator. I told him it would be a great thing for the DRC program to have a young, motivated contributor like him. Before the end of the training, he committed to join the Congolese Wheelchair Basketball Federation and asked if I would be willing to continue mentoring him from afar so he could learn as much as possible in order to help the sport grow in his country. He’ll have the chance to do great things, I have no doubt.

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Teaching the players and coaches from Kinshasa and Kisangani with the help of my interpreter, Ken (to my left in hat)

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One consistent theme among all the countries in which I’ve coached: everybody loves selfies. Here I take one with Muamba from Kinshasa.

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The coaching, classifying, and referee students and I had a surprise visitor on our second day of class when we were joined by Tony, a Spanish national, who was driving – by himself – from Spain to South Africa then up to Russia to promote the power of basketball to bring people together and heal societal wounds. He even named his project after my old home town, Brooklyn.

Following my week in Kinshasa, I flew across the country to the shores of Lake Kivu – which forms the border between the DRC and Rwanda – to the city of Bukavu. I was joined on the trip by Professor Betty, Firez, the vice president of the Congolese Wheelchair Basketball Federation, and Eva Bonjele, an ICRC colleague who is responsible for the disability sport and inclusion component of the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Programme in the DRC. After six hour flight – we had to fly north to Kisangani to drop off the players and coaches who had come to Kinshasa for the training camp before flying southeast to Bukavu – there was a 20 mile (32km) drive from the airport to the city of Bukavu. Normally that drive takes somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half because the road (there is only one) is in very bad condition for much of the journey. We arrived following several days of heavy rain, so the road was a massive mud pit in many areas, which causes several giant trucks to get stuck, blocking the way. It took us four hours to drive 20 miles, which made for a long travel day, but it gave me a chance to observe how life works on a daily basis in Eastern DRC. I was stunned by how many people there walk for hours every day to get to and from work, to the market, or running other errands – often carrying huge loads with them either on their backs on balanced expertly on their heads – through extremely difficult muddy conditions. Despite this, I don’t remember seeing a single face looking forlorn, angry, or unhappy. I’ll definitely think about all the commuters in Bukavu the next time I get stuck in a traffic jam in my comfortable, temperature-controlled car and am tempted to complain about what an inconvenience it is.

The other positive aspect of the long drive was that I had the opportunity to appreciate all the natural beauty the Congo has to offer. I didn’t get a real sense of the country while I was in Kinshasa – most giant cities tend to feel fairly similar to me – but driving just the 20 miles through South Kivu province from the airport to Bukavu allowed me to see what I’d always imagined the country looking like. It was even more beautiful than I expected, with the lake and dramatic weather systems combining to create amazing vistas that constantly shifted throughout the day. The court where we held the training camp was perched high on a hillside overlooking Lake Kivu, with the city of Bukavu on the near shore and the rolling hills of Rwanda across the water. It was right up there with the court in Faizabad, Afghanistan as the most naturally beautiful settings in which I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.

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The view as we drove out of the Bukavu airport was of a graveyard of long-dead planes resting at the foot of a mountain backdrop

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Looking across Lake Kivu toward Rwanda and an isolated rain squall on the drive to Bukavu

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The view from the Bukavu basketball court

The players and coaches, classifiers and referees in Bukavu were just as wonderful as their counterparts in the West of the country. Again, the group was split evenly between male and female players, half from Bukavu and half from Goma – a city in North Kivu Province on the opposite side of Lake Kivu. The Goma players and coaches traveled four hours by boat across the lake to spend the week in Bukavu, an experience I wished I’d been able to share with them. I was originally scheduled to conduct the eastern training in Goma, but some security issues shortly before I arrived forced us to move the training to Bukavu. I was very impressed by the organization and – again – timeliness of every training session considering how quickly it had to be thrown together. I can’t thank the Wheelchair Basketball Federation, National Paralympic Committee and my ICRC colleagues, Eva and Bernardo, enough for all their hard work to make it happen despite all the logistical challenges.

During the three days of training in Bukavu, I shared lunch with a different table of players each day. With the help of my two interpreters, Peter and Oscar, I was able to have some very interesting conversations. One question that really struck me was when Felicité, an 18 year-old female player asked me, “how are you treated as a disabled person in your home country?” I’ve heard variations of this question from players a time or two before, but it always makes me stop and think how I can respond as authentically as possible while being respectful of the vastly different cultures and socio-economic realities in which the players and I are living. I told them that I try not to be particularly concerned with how people perceive me or if they have negative or misinformed assumptions based on my physical appearance. I said that I made a decision when I was first injured over 22 years ago that I would act and present myself as the person I know myself to be. While having a physical disability is certainly something that is an important part of my daily life, it is never what defines me. I choose to let people see the bigger picture of who I am in the way I interact with them and the way I carry myself.

The players at the table, all of whom were between 17 and 21 years old, looked at me with their eyes wide open and shining. They asked, “Is it possible for us to do that too??” Of course it is, I told them. Even if you are dealing with a society that may be a bit less evolved in how it is accustomed to perceiving persons with physical disabilities, the only way for that to change is for you to display the strength, intelligence and beauty that each of you have inside you and push to achieve your dreams so everyone you meet can see what you are truly capable of. That is the only way for a truly inclusive society to evolve. You can be the ones to start that change.

They all nodded and smiled confidently. “We will do it,” they said. I know they will, and I know the DRC is about to see its wheelchair basketball program truly blossom.

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The North and South Kivu crew
Blog 7
Felicité, 18, may have been the smallest player in Bukavu, but I have a feeling she will do big things

 

In late October, Joe Higgins, former head coach of the Canadian and Hong Kong men’s national teams and one of the world’s legendary wheelchair basketball teachers, and Alphonsus “Fonzie” To, a member of the Hong Kong national team and a resident of Vancouver, Canada who has played for multiple wheelchair basketball teams coached by Joe in Canada, the U.S. and Hong Kong, traveled together to Chennai, India to conduct a training camp for Indian men’s national team hopefuls as well as a group of young developing players from across the country. I met Coach Joe while coaching the Afghanistan men’s national team at the IWBF qualifying tournament for the Asian Para Games this past March in Bangkok, and was immediately impressed by the progress he’d made with the Hong Kong team since I’d seen them just a few months before at a tournament in Beijing. Recognizing his ability to quickly identify the strengths and weaknesses of teams and individual players, as well as his knack for providing them with a roadmap to success, I invited Joe to travel to India as a consultant to the ICRC to work with both elite and beginning athletes and coaches for a week and a half. Fonzie – whom I’ve gotten to know well through Team Canada, Team Hong Kong, and the NWBA here in the U.S. – volunteered to join Joe as an assistant coach. I knew Joe and Fonzie would be a perfect team to help India take the next big step forward in its wheelchair basketball development, so I was excited to send them as the first coaches I’ve ever deployed through the ICRC other than myself.

I asked Coach Joe to write a guest blog post about their experience, which he graciously agreed to do. Thanks to both Joe and Fonzie for their incredible work!

I’ll hand the rest of the post over to Joe:

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Let me begin by thanking Jess Markt for the honour of being a guest contributor to his blog. As 2018 draws to a close, I wanted to write about the awesome experience Alphonsus “Fonzie” To and I had coaching in India this past October and November.

Jess, as many of you know, has shown great leadership and vision in inspiring many developing nations to build wheelchair basketball programs in recent years through his work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Fonzie and I were excited when we were asked to run a camp for the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). This federation is led by President Madhavi Latha and, through her leadership and hard work, India has shown great growth and development in the sport. Working with Jess, the ICRC and the WBFI, Madhavi organized a camp that integrated high performance players from across India, developing performance players from different Indian states, and young future players who will be the foundation of the sport for years to come. An additional component of this camp was the inclusion of a coaching mentorship program which brought together many fine coaches from across India.

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Coach Joe (right) and Fonzie (left) working with Indian coaches

The clinic in India had many highlights, but my most impactful realization was how much this program has grown in just four short years. The number of quality players, coaches, and administrators who are working together to develop wheelchair basketball in India is amazing! The players showed daily improvement throughout the camp in all aspects of wheelchair basketball: tactical, technical, physical, and mental. The players showed a great ability to help each other improve, always displaying kindness and openness to learning from each other and the coaches at the camp.

Each morning, the camp would begin—sometimes as early as 6am—and we would break the players into groups with different themes for their development. And although we only had two hoops, we used the gym highly effectively by breaking it down into segments. Fonzie would take athletes and work on certain skills; myself and other coaches would do chair skills and passing skills in another area of the gymnasium; and another set of coaches worked on team play at the other end of the court. One of the coolest things was watching the future young players of India come early every morning to watch the best of India perform these skills. Each session was broken down into two hour segments. When the future players of India took the court, it was a challenge for all coaches at the camp to make it enjoyable, rewarding, and challenging for every participant. And they did an excellent job building relationships and bringing out the best in every athlete. I believe that India has many strengths and challenges ahead. They have many high quality coaches who have deep experience in stand-up basketball as well as several coaches who have had experience in wheelchair basketball. As they learn to integrate their strengths as coaches and people, they can make each other strong wheelchair basketball coaches. Their knowledge and willingness to be coached as they develop was evident every day. Madhavi and the WBFI’s secretary general, Kaylani, have developed a culture of giving back through their leadership. It was evident in the coaches, the volunteers and the man they called the Chair Doctor, whose job it was to make sure that the equipment (and Coach Joe) was well looked after.

Throughout the camp, the players and coaches were exposed to different types of practices and coaching methods. These included “Jamboree” games where all the players of the camp played in big scrimmage games where each team had many players of all different levels. They played with and against each other in a fun and competitive environment. The positive impact such games will have on the young players – who had their first chance to play with the country’s best athletes – will be demonstrated in the years to come. We also ran special sessions focusing on positional drills and classification-specific tricks of the trade. As the camp progressed, coaches and athletes became more involved in mentoring and helping each other execute drills and skills. The players and coaches of India take great pride in defining themselves as athletes and individuals who can overcome the challenges that come with playing and developing this relatively new sport in India.

Some of the challenges for me and Fonzie seemed very big at first. Coming from Canada, which has a long and rich wheelchair basketball history, we are used to having access to top quality equipment including wheelchairs, strapping, basketballs, and wheelchair accessible  basketball facilities. In India, things were a bit less refined in this regard as the program is still in its early stages, but we all made the most of what we had. These challenges will be addressed over time, but the participants and organizers of the camp and people like Jess will focus on what they can do today and how they can improve things for the future.

An example of this is the ICRC tournament that was held in Lebanon shortly after Fonzie and I ran our camp in India. Here five developing national teams from countries dealing with war and conflict came together to compete through the support of the ICRC. Tournaments like this help nations who are new to the sport develop and measure their strengths and weaknesses while providing the players and coaches with invaluable international competition experience. India came home with a third place finish, making its country proud, and showed great improvement from its previous international competitions.

The experience in India for Fonzie and me was much bigger than a basketball camp. It began with a welcome dinner and many “selfies” with players and coaches who would become our friends. I am not known to be very good at remembering names and with 60 new friends it was imperative for us to come up with nicknames—Mosquito, Magic and Beast, to name just a few. The calls of “Coach!” echoing around the gymnasium as players constantly tried to get Fonzie’s attention for another tip or another photo is a memory I will not soon forget.

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Team India captain, Suresh Kharki, and Fonzi To

On the final day, the WBFI put on a fabulous exhibition of wheelchair basketball for dignitaries and current and potential corporate sponsors where she recognized players and coaches with gifts and awards. This is just one example of how India is promoting wheelchair basketball as a premier sport across the country, with points of engagement for all different sectors of society. This type of inclusive thinking will help the sport develop extremely quickly. As I left the gym on our last day, I looked back and saw one of the WBFI’s finest volunteers, the Chair Doctor, solitarily loading the last of the basketball wheelchairs into a big cube van. He represents all those who helped make this experience happen for Fonzie, me and all the Indian players and coaches.

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The Chair Doctor (left) receives a certificate of appreciation from WBFI President, Madhavi Latha, for all his invaluable work supporting the camp participants

Thanks, Jess, ICRC, WBFI, and all those who worked behind the scenes to put on such a great experience. If any of you coaches around the world ever have the opportunity to work under Jess’s inspiring vision, I would encourage you all to say YES! I always say wheelchair basketball is a family and with leaders like Jess Markt, the family will continue to grow and become stronger.

Wishing you all the best for 2019!

Joe Higgins

From November 29th to December 1st, the ICRC held the first annual Hanna Lahoud International Wheelchair Basketball Cup – its first ever international wheelchair basketball tournament – in Tripoli, Lebanon. The Cup was intended to be an opportunity for players in West and Central Asian countries receiving support from the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Programme (PRP) to come together and demonstrate their skills and the power of sport to stimulate the inclusion of persons with physical disabilities, even in some of the most challenging places in the world. Teams participated from Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. It was a fantastic event that generated some incredible stories as well as powerful friendships among the various participants.

Hanna Lahoud, for whom the tournament was named, was a Lebanese-born ICRC delegate who was tragically killed in the line of duty in April of this year while serving in Yemen. While I never had the opportunity to meet Hanna in person, we share many common friends and I know he was a universally beloved colleague who brought great joy to all those who had the good fortune to pass through his orbit. Hanna was also a great fan of wheelchair basketball. He even organized – and played in – regular pickup games in Guinea Bissau, where he was posted before moving to Yemen. He was personally dedicated to pushing for the social inclusion of people with disabilities during his life, and I can’t think of a better namesake for what will hopefully become an annual ICRC event. Thank you to Hanna for everything he contributed and for all the lives he touched. His legacy will continue to impact many more.

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The tournament promotional poster featuring Hanna (in black) playing wheelchair basketball in Guinea Bissau

I was excited to see the team from Afghanistan, with which I was supposed to have spent two weeks in late September before my mission was canceled at the last minute due to security issues. Not having been with them in person since I coached the team at a tournament in Bangkok, Thailand last March, I was excited to see how they’d grown in the months since. This would be the first tournament in which the Afghan men’s team has ever participated where they weren’t entering as massive underdogs (all their previous international experiences have been at Asia zone-level qualifiers with elite teams like Australian, Iran, Japan, Korea, etc. I also chose this as the first tournament in which I wouldn’t act as the team’s coach. Given that it was the first ICRC tournament and my role is to support the development of sports programs in all the countries where we work, it felt like I should be an unattached supporter of all the teams, so I handed the coaching reins over for the first time. Qawamuddin Ghafoori, my long-time assistant coach with the national team, would take over as head coach, and the team captain since its inception four years ago, Wasiq Sediqqi, would transition from player to assistant coach. I was confident in Qawam and Wasiq to lead the team in the right direction, but was curious to see how they would respond when faced with inevitable adversity.

Not surprisingly, it was a very strange feeling to sit in the gym watching as a team I’ve coached in every game they’ve ever played took the court without me on the bench. There have been less than a handful of total wheelchair basketball competitions – in any country – where I haven’t been a coach or a referee, so it felt a bit awkward to not have a clearly defined role (thankfully the classifiers invited me to join them so I wouldn’t go completely stir crazy). During the first game of the tournament, in which Afghanistan played a solid Iraq team (not the national team of Iraq, but a very strong group of promising young players) I found my heart pounding the same way it had during every game in which I’ve coached them in the past. I tried to create some emotional distance – I was rooting for both teams equally, right? – but it was difficult. After Iraq took an early lead, the teams went back-and-forth for the second and third quarters. I continued to sweat. Finally, in the fourth quarter Afghanistan hit its stride and pulled away. The Afghan coaches did a great job running substitutions to keep their players fresh, which had the team playing its best in the latter stages of the game.

I have to say, though, better even than seeing the team play well and get a win to start the tournament was the way they all comported themselves during the game. They were perfect gentlemen even during the most intense parts of the game: reaching out to tap an opposing player on the shoulder if they fouled him, helping Iraqi players up if they fell out of their chairs, behaving respectfully toward the referees even if they didn’t agree with all the calls. It warmed my heart to see them playing well, but also playing the right way and exemplifying the ideals of the tournament itself.

21The Afghanistan team pulled together to play its best tournament yet (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

I was similarly looking forward to seeing the Indian team play for the first time since Thailand – which had been their first official IWBF tournament; always a huge challenge – and catch up with the players I had coached back in 2014 and ‘15 when they were first getting started. India had a new head coach in Lebanon as well – Sharad Nagane, who was among my first group of Indian coach trainees when I visited the city of Pune in 2014 – who joined longtime assistant coach, Thayumana Subramaniam, in leading the team. Team India was coming off a training camp conducted by coaches Joe Higgins from Canada and Alphonsus “Fonzie” To from Canada/Hong Kong, whom I’d sent to India in late October to give the team a dose of their significant international experience and knowledge. The training camp went fantastically well, by all accounts, and I was excited to see what new skills and coordination the team would bring to the tournament and observe how Sharad and Thayumana would shepherd them into the next stage in their development.

The Indians played Syria in their first game and, while they looked infinitely better than they had just seven months before in Bangkok, their consistency hadn’t yet caught up with their newfound understanding of the game. Syria – which, to my understanding had never played together outside Syria before – played its heart out and never let up the pace, holding on at the end for a close victory. I talked to the Indian coaches after the game and told them to focus on keeping their team’s confidence up. They had shown that they were capable of playing at this level – I actually felt they played a better game than the Syrians; they just couldn’t knock down the shots they needed – and needed to retain that focus in the coming days to show the rest of the tournament field the kind of team they could be.

During the remainder of the tournament, the games got better and more competitive as the teams settled into their respective grooves. Afghanistan managed to win each of its four round robin games, sending it to the championship match on Saturday afternoon. The other four teams showed great parity, splitting games between each other and coming down to the final round robin game to decide which position each would play for on the final day. In the last game of the round robin, India managed to eke out a one point victory over Iraq to secure its place in game for third place. Finally putting everything together and using strategy and technique to pull out their first close win in international competition was massively cathartic for the Indians, and they were absolutely glowing after the game. They carried that energy into the third place game and dominated from start to finish to win the tournament’s bronze medal. It was the first step in what I know will be a rapid rise for that team.

2The Iraq bench sends energy to its players during the game against India (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

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India, led by up-and-coming star player Javed (center), celebrates its one point victory over Iraq (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

Syria, following the aforementioned win against India in its first game, managed to win enough to punch its ticket to the championship game against Afghanistan. Syria may not have been the most technically proficient team, but they definitely had the most heart. They were led by Nabih Chabaan, a class 4.0 who played like a wheelchair basketball version of Charles Barkley – not the tallest or fastest player on the court, but one of the strongest and one who always found a way to convert baskets when his team needed them. Syria fed off Nabih’s energy and leadership and played at the top of their capability throughout the tournament.

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Nabih from Syria tries to take off on a fast break while Assad from Afghanistan applies… questionable… technique on defense (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

The other player on the Syrian team that most astounded me was Laith Mubayed. Laith is a class 1.0 player who has overcome some of the most challenging impairments I’ve ever seen in a wheelchair basketball player. He was born with very short legs – so short his feet barely reach the edge of his wheelchair cushion – and his arms are truncated just above each elbow. This means that Laith pushes his wheelchair (quite fast, I should point out), dribbles, passes and shoots with no hands and no forearms. During warmups, he was shooting – and making – three point shots. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years in the game. To shoot a ball any distance using two biceps seems almost impossible. To shoot it over 22 feet (6.75 meters) with accuracy is just completely unbelievable. Laith was at the center of the Syrian team’s energy whether he was playing ferocious defense in the game or cheering from the bench. He would get so fired up between plays on the court that he’d bounce his wheelchair up and down, jumping all four wheels off the floor. The concept of a player being “an inspiration” starts to become redundant in a wheelchair basketball tournament peopled entirely by physically disabled players coming from countries dealing with war and conflict, but Laith definitely inspired everyone who saw him play. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet him once Syria’s national team starts to play in international tournaments on a more regular basis.

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Laythe Mubayid of Syria (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

A quick aside: Lebanon as a country is crazy for basketball – maybe the only place I’ve visited outside the US where basketball is more popular than soccer. They have a high-level pro league in which the star players are national celebrities similar to NBA players here in the US. The communications team at the ICRC delegation in the capital city of Beirut managed to convince several of the best players in the country – all members of the Lebanese national team – to support our tournament by both participating in online ads beforehand to build public awareness and excitement and by playing in an exhibition game in wheelchairs against some of the players on the Lebanese wheelchair team preceding the tournament final. I had the pleasure of coaching the able-bodied stars during the game, which meant I had approximately 30 seconds to explain how to move their wheelchairs while controlling the ball before they hit the court in front of a raucous crowd. The players were great sports and threw themselves fully into trying to get the hang of the game on the fly. After a few minutes of being run off the court by the Lebanese wheelchair team – and falling behind 10-0 – they started to get the hang of it and brought their shooting and height to bear in mounting a comeback. In the end, one of the able-bodied players buried a three pointer to tie the game at the final buzzer, sending the crowd (and his teammates) into pandemonium. The tie score was a perfect way to end a game that was all about equality and inclusion. The players graciously took photos with anyone who asked following the game. It was a wonderful experience for everyone – hopefully they’ll be ready to come back next year!

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I called a late timeout to give the Lebanese pro players the “green light” to shoot threes in their comeback attempt. They were excited (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

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And the excitement paid off with a game-tying three at the buzzer! (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

In the final game, Afghanistan and Syria played a classic. The gymnasium seats were packed with supporters from the ICRC and the community, as well as the family and friends of Hanna Lahoud. The game was played at a fast tempo throughout, with both teams reaching their highest scores of the tournament. Nabih scored 28 points for Syria, keeping them in the game until the end against a balanced scoring attack from Afghanistan. When the final buzzer sounded, the Afghans had preserved one last victory and collapsed into a pile of tears and laughter – a team that had never won an international game until earlier this year was now the tournament champions.

7Ramazan runs the Afghanistan offense in the tournament final (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

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Belal, who had been away from the national team for over a year, returned to lead the team to the championship in Lebanon (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

It’s easy to forget sometimes in the endless swirl of training camps and competitions what a rare and beautiful thing victory can be. Not a single member of the Afghanistan team has lived a day of their lives without the specter of war looming over them. They have all embraced wheelchair basketball as their salvation. This was finally the (first) culmination of all the hours they’ve spent working diligently to learn a game most of them had never seen before they first picked up a ball a few short years ago. Watching them spread their wings and achieve this victory together was a wonderful, but admittedly slightly strange, feeling. I wanted nothing more than to embrace each of them and tell them all how proud I was of them, but I knew that I needed to hold back – at least for that moment – and let them feel the power of having done something very powerful all on their own.

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Players and coaches from Team Afghanistan hoist the championship trophy

The final moment of the tournament was the presentation of the award for the most valuable player by the Hanna Lahoud Foundation. The Foundation was formed recently by Hanna’s wife, Patricia, who also works for the ICRC and whom I’d gotten to know during my last visit to Afghanistan in February, and several family members and close friends of Hanna’s. The Foundation’s first act was to raise money that would be given to the MVP to help them get an education, start a business or develop another project designed to either generate income or improve their community. The MVP was voted on by each of the coaches with the instruction that their choice should exemplify not only impressive skill on the court, but also excellent sportsmanship and leadership (the coaches were not allowed to vote for their own players). When the votes were tallied, the player who stood above all others was Nabih from Syria. When he heard his name announced, his hands flew to his face and he dissolved in tears of joy. I don’t know much about Nabih’s story – though I hope to learn more in the coming years – but I can only imagine the journey he’s been through during the last several years in Syria. He definitely earned that award.

Endless thanks to everyone at the ICRC in Lebanon, the Hanna Lahoud Foundation, the Tripoli Disabled Sports Association, and the other partners who helped to make this tournament happen. It was a perfect representation of what the ICRC’s sport and inclusion program is all about and was a true credit to Hanna’s legacy. Until next year.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, hosted a group of top ambassadors from neighboring countries in the African Union over the last couple weeks. At the same time, the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Programme (PRP) in Addis brought together a diverse collective of wheelchair basketball players, coaches, referees and classifiers from across five East African countries, along with guest educators from South Africa, Turkey, Switzerland and, in my case, the U.S. It’s been a phenomenal two weeks filled with innovation, friendships old and new, lots of languages and a tremendous amount of positive energy.

Adecco

After arriving from South Sudan on November 11th, my first order of business was to meet up with Cynthia Hansen, head of the Adecco Group Foundation – the Zurich-based ICRC Corporate Support Group Partner that is providing invaluable support as we build our global sport and inclusion program for persons with physical disabilities – to deliver a pilot project focused on teaching disabled athletes how to identify potential careers and acquire fulfilling employment. The Adecco Group has spent years supporting Olympic and Paralympic athletes in making the transition from full-time athletic pursuits to more traditional careers through their Athlete Career Program, so I’ve been working over the past six months with Cynthia and her Adecco colleague, Patrick Glennon, to tailor their training materials to apply to the types of contexts in which the ICRC works (less traditional economies, part-time athletes, differing views of persons with physical disabilities, etc.).

The half-day pilot, intended to both give the athlete participants some valuable professional insights and get their feedback on how we can further hone the material to make it even more applicable to their lives, got our visit off to a great start. It was the first on-the-ground project we’ve done with Adecco and the first time the ICRC has delivered content of this type. After we gave a brief introduction about the purpose of the initiative, the 40 participants – many of whom were meeting each other (as well as Cynthia and myself) for the first time – became progressively more and more engaged and interactive throughout our four hours together. By the end, after the participants had shared some valuable perspectives on the material, I had several of them ask for the presentation slides so they could remember everything they’d learned. It was an extremely valuable exercise for us (and hopefully for them as well!) and I’m looking forward to working with Cynthia and Patrick to parlay the information we gathered into a 2019 global train-the-trainer program that will serve as the foundation for a further expanded and impactful ICRC/Adecco social inclusion initiative in the coming years.

IWBF

Following a great first few days spent with Adecco, I was joined next by two expert trainers from the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), with which the ICRC recently formalized a partnership that will allow us to bring IWBF technical expertise to bear in countries where the ICRC PRP supports burgeoning wheelchair basketball programs. Nurettin Bilmez, a referee instructor from Turkey who has been a top international referee for 20 years, and Loléta Krige, a classification instructor from South Africa with over 25 years of experience at the international level, came to Ethiopia as volunteers and provided tremendous educational programs for the gathered trainees. Like with Adecco, this was the first time the ICRC and IWBF have partnered to deliver training at the country or regional level, and it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. I’ve taught classification and refereeing basics to trainees in many of the countries in which I’ve worked over the years, but Loléta’s and Nurettin’s level of knowledge and their ability to convey complex information to relative beginners in a way that could be quickly digested and applied really took this program to the next level. It also permitted me to focus my time and energy on teaching the players and coaches, which meant all the participants could dive as deeply as possible into their chosen field in a relatively limited time frame. I can’t thank Loléta and Nurettin enough for their contributions. Thanks also to the IWBF for the first of what I know will be many wonderful collaborations.

The Players and Coaches

There were too many incredible people gathered in Ethiopia to write about all of them, but I want to introduce some of the memorable characters in this African wheelchair basketball melting pot. We had players, coaches, and technical officials join the program from eight regions of Ethiopia as well as Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Considering the range of languages and cultures represented and the fact that at least half of the participants had never met before, it was amazing to see the group laughing together like old friends just a couple days into the program.

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Photo courtesy of Alice Blaquiere/ICRC

DRC
Nancy and Paulin were the two players to come from the DRC. They were joined by their coach, Teddy, and brought some serious competitive fire to the proceedings. The DRC has a fairly well-established wheelchair basketball program, with eight teams spread across the country. While this was their first official exposure to wheelchair basketball training, Teddy and a few of his coaching colleagues have clearly done their homework with the internet resources available to them.

Paulin had the best technique and basketball mind of any player present at our camp and had a competitive intensity that was, in turns, both inspiring and intimidating for some of the other players. I had a few conversations with Paulin and Teddy (who provided English-to-French translation) about how Paulin needs to harness his competitiveness, intelligence and skill in order to become a true leader in DRC wheelchair basketball. The great news is that he proved to be an eminently coachable player who readily accepted constructive feedback, so I know he’ll take our talks to heart. He has the potential to become a legitimate international-level player after a few more years of development and good coaching.

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Paulin (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

Nancy was a bit newer to the game and less polished than Paulin, but she had every bit of his competitiveness, balanced with an amazing sense of humor. She made the entire group laugh multiple times every training session with her antics and French trash talking – no one needed to understand the language to grasp her meaning. Nancy, like Paulin, is a natural athlete who listens well and has a great future ahead of her. I’m scheduled to make my first visit to DRC next year, so I’m excited to see how she and Paulin have evolved as players by the next time I see them. They’re both natural leaders who can be tremendous influences on their countrymen and women.

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Nancy (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

Tanzania
The two participants from Tanzania were coach Robert and player Mariana. Robert immediately made his mark by being both an exceptional English speaker and one of the most engaged participants in the Adecco pilot presentation. Throughout the two weeks, he was constantly asking questions to ensure he completely understood every concept we learned. He has the perfect demeanor and attitude for a coach and I know he – and the Rwanda program – will go far if he sticks with it.

Mariana, while not necessarily the most natural athlete of the group and definitely less firey than her Congolese counterparts (I think I heard her say less than 10 words during our two weeks together) was nonetheless one of the most dedicated students of the game. Every time I taught a new concept, she would do it again and again until she could fully grasp it, no matter how many times it took. This will be an invaluable trait in her imparting what she learned to the rest of the beginning players in Tanzania. Mariana also had one of the sweetest personalities I’ve ever encountered. No matter how hot it got or how hard I made her work, she always had a small smile on her face and – as a result – was loved by all the players.

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Mariania (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

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Mariana from Tanzania and Nancy from DRC were instant friends (Photo courtesy of Alice Blaquiere/ICRC)

Rwanda
Rwanda was represented by coach David and player Dina. David has pretty extensive experience as a standing basketball player and referee, and proved to be a willing and talented coach of the wheelchair game as well. He was, like Robert, endlessly curious about the finer details of the techniques and rules of the game, and showed himself to be – both academically and on the court – a standout referee among a talented group. He could definitely become an international wheelchair basketball referee or coach if he chooses to pursue either path.

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David (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

Dina, like Mariana, started off the week quietly. She speaks English quite well, but I didn’t find that out until several days into the program. However, once she got comfortable with the other players, she opened up quickly and became a regular center of the action. At the end of our tournament on the final day of the camp, each foreign player was announced by the tournament DJ and was given a gift as a keepsake of their time in Ethiopia. When Dina was announced first to a pumping beat blaring from the sound system, she jumped out of her chair and launched into an Ethiopian-style dance that had the entire gathered crowd clapping and cheering. Dina rocks.

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Dina (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

Sudan
While I’ve spent significant time in South Sudan the past two years, I had yet to meet a player or coach from Sudan in the north. Coach Adam and Marwan, the attending player, made an immediate and fantastic first impression for their country. Adam has a quick wit and is endlessly joyful to be around, and has a clear dedication to promoting sports for people with physical disabilities. He also proved to be an excellent referee trainee. I hope to support the new wheelchair basketball program in Sudan next year, but with Adam helping to get it off the ground, it’s in very good hands.

Marwan – who doubles as a power lifter in addition to his more recent move to wheelchair basketball – will also undoubtedly be an important leader in the development of Sudanese wheelchair basketball. He was endlessly hilarious, commonly shouting his pleasure or displeasure with a given sequence in training or games in Arabic accompanied by wild gesticulations. He was just as willing to laugh at his own overwrought reactions, though, and got the biggest cheer of the entire group when he was announced last at the post-tournament gift-giving celebration. Marwan is the definition of the big teddy bear archetype – tough on the surface, but all heart.

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Marwan (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

EthiopiaIt feels unfair to only write about two of the 25 Ethiopian players who took part in the camp, as they were all such great and individual personalities, but two of them – Emabet and Gizachew – stood out to me for very different reasons. Emabet showed talent as a player and had the demeanor of a natural – though still young – leader. She was just as quick to laugh or snap at herself for making a mistake, but she made real progress in the few days we had to work together. As the women’s game in Ethiopia continues to evolve, I can see her becoming a central figure on an eventual Ethiopian national team. Toward the end of the tournament, I noticed Emabet, Dina, and another Ethiopian player from a different region than Emabet all crying. I asked what was wrong and Emabet tearfully answered, “Dina is going home tomorrow and we are sad.” After just two weeks together and having only a handful of words in English with which to communicate, the bond these players developed is truly remarkable. It’s a perfect example of sport breaking down barriers and bringing people together.

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Emabet (photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

Gizachew came into the camp as a true beginner. I’m not sure if he had even held a basketball before our first day together, and his coordination was several steps behind the other players. He struggled throughout the camp to get his brain and body to work together as I taught the group progressively more difficult skills, but – similarly to Mariana – he never gave up. He just kept smiling and trying to get it right. Again. Again. Again. Gizachew never scored a basket in any of our practice games, and he played very few minutes in the tournament. However, when he found himself in the game at the end of the final game – his team behind by too wide a margin to come back – he was thrown a pass near the basket. He focused enough to make a difficult catch then, as the final seconds of the game ticked away, spun his chair to face the goal, raised the ball in the shooting technique he’d been battling to learn for two weeks and, as I whispered, “Come on, Gizachew…” to myself on the sidelines, swished his first in-game score ever. The entire gathered crowd of players and spectators erupted in cheers as a massive grin spread across Gizachew’s face.

Gizachew is unlikely to become an international-level wheelchair basketball player for Ethiopia. He may never even play a primary role on his regional team. But that one meaningless (to most people) score in a makeshift tournament exemplifies the reason I – and everyone I am lucky enough to work with promoting sport and inclusion for people with physical disabilities – love what we do. Gizachew got a chance, even for a fleeting moment, to feel like a basketball star. Who knows; maybe that seemingly small experience will have a profound impact on his self-perception and the path his life will take moving forward.

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Gizachew (Photo courtesy of Drew Weatherstone/ICRC)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more person who was instrumental in making this entire experience happen. Solomon Berhanu, a physiotherapist for the ICRC PRP in Ethiopia, spent endless hours coordinating logistics and making last second improvisations to get the equipment, facilities, transportation, and every other detail organized so that all of us could have an incredible wheelchair basketball training camp together. And he did all this while studying – and succeeding – to become a national-level classifier. Thank you, Solomon and everyone else who is helping to ensure sport for persons with disabilities in Ethiopia and across East Africa is a priority that will continue to grow and blossom in the coming years.

 

The past two weeks in South Sudan have been some of the most memorable in the nine years I’ve been coaching wheelchair basketball in conflict zones (in fact, this past weekend marked the 9th anniversary of my first trip to Afghanistan – time flies!!). Because there were so many powerfully inspirational moments on this trip, I’m going to focus less on the basketball side of things in this post and more on the human element.

As I mentioned in my posts about my first trip to South Sudan early last year, I felt a connection to the people there immediately after arriving. That feeling only got stronger on my second visit. One of the main drivers of that growing bond was the fact that I was joined on the trip by Malat Wei, a 24 year-old star player for the Arizona Wildcats of the NWBA who was born in South Sudan and moved the the US with his family as a refugee 12 years ago. Malat contacted me shortly after my last trip to Juba almost two years ago and asked if there was any way he could get involved in building the wheelchair basketball program in his home country in the future. He told me it had been his dream since he was first introduced to the game in Houston at age 14 to return to South Sudan and help people with physical disabilities create a league there. I was immediately struck by Malat’s dedication to creating something powerful for his people and his country – both of which he is intensely proud of – even though he hadn’t been back to South Sudan since his family fled war in the region when he was just three years old. Malat contracted polio as a child just before the family relocated to a refugee camp across the Ethiopian border. He didn’t have access to a wheelchair until he arrived in the United States almost a decade later. He spent his formative years at Dima refugee camp crawling on his hands and knees to get around, but never let that stop him from playing with his friends like any other kid. He played soccer with the local youth at Dima using his hands, and describes those days – hard as they were for his family – as some of the best memories of his life.

Flying into Juba after a short overnight stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa was an emotional experience, but a joyful one. Malat could not stop smiling as he took in the landscape from the airplane window, following the White Nile southward. We were both stunned by how green it was; the rainy season had lasted until about a week before we arrived, so it was a much different sight than the arid plains I remembered. Malat kept exclaiming, “It’s so beautiful, Jess! I can’t believe it! Look at my country. There’s so much good that can happen here!”

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Malat taking in the scenery flying into Juba (all photos courtesy of Niki Clark, ICRC)

Adding to the excitement, the day before Malat and I arrived, the opposing factions in the ongoing South Sudanese civil war – including former Vice President and rebel faction leader, Riek Machar, who had been in exile in Khartoum since the last major outbreak of fighting in 2016 – met to sign a major peace agreement. The ceremony, which was also attended by leaders from several neighboring African countries, went as well as could be hoped. Following a giant public celebration the night before we landed, the populace was buzzing with positive energy and hope for a better future for the world’s youngest country. The Juba International Airport Terminal – which had been under construction on-and-off for years – was even finally opened to commemorate the occasion; we were lucky enough to be among the very first people to pass through its doors.

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Arriving in South Sudan

As we drove through the streets of Juba, Malat had his window open, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of a place he’d never been, but that were still so familiar to his subconscious memory. “Look, that’s a mango tree!” he shouted probably five times in the first couple minutes after leaving the airport before realizing that mango trees – majestic as they are – are everywhere in Juba! It was magical to watch him take in all those familiar elements of South Sudan for the first time as an adult. He enthusiastically greeted people we passed in the streets from the window of the car, using the Dinka and Nuer languages he had learned growing up, and immediately ingratiated himself to every person he came into contact with. Whether on the court with the players or in the community, Malat was a positive force of nature during the entire trip.

We broke the wheelchair basketball players into two groups of trainees. We spent the first three days working with 30 mostly brand new players, then the next four working with the experienced group – most of whom were the same players I’d coached in January 2017.

The beginner group included the first female wheelchair basketball player in South Sudan – a slight young woman named Afaf – who was completely unintimidated by the fact that she was both new to the game and surrounded by 29 male players. To the guys’ credit, they treated Afaf as though there was no difference between her and them. The group was fantastic and Afaf showed herself to have the competitive instinct and personal drive to be the kind of leader we need to get women’s wheelchair basketball off the ground in South Sudan. My hope is that we can draw enough initial participants to join her that we can have a separate women’s training camp and game next year.

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Afaf is breaking new ground in South Sudanese wheelchair basketball, and doing it with a smile!

We also got the chance to meet a South Sudanese women’s able-bodied basketball player and coach named Sarah Chan, who played college ball at the University of Tennessee and who is now based in Kenya. Sara told Malat and I that she would love to get involved with coaching wheelchair basketball in her home country as well, so we may have an even bigger coaching team next year. Having a role model like Sarah along with leaders like Afaf will undoubtedly have a huge impact on prompting more female athletes to take up the game.

Those readers who were following my previous trip to South Sudan in 2017 may remember an amazing character named Peter “Bravo” Bol. Peter’s disability is fairly severe – it prevents him from leaning or turning in his wheelchair, making it very difficult for him to physically execute many of the skills we’re teaching the players – but his motor is far too strong to be slowed by such inconveniences. Bravo Bol does not take no for an answer, from his own body or from anyone else.

One day, when a driver went to pick up Peter and his teammates at the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp where they live outside Juba to bring them to the morning training session, the camp security guards said the vehicle wouldn’t be allowed to come inside. They also said the players didn’t have the requisite permissions to go outside to meet the car at that hour, leaving everyone staring at a likely delay in getting to the court for practice. Peter Bol would have none of that; he was ready to play. While the other players waited for the guards to look into the needed permissions, Bravo Bol grabbed his cane and, in his inimitable way, slowly strutted right through the gates of the camp by himself, dragging one leg behind him. The guards yelled at him to come back, but eventually gave up and allowed all the players to go out to meet the car. A few days later, Peter’s team, the Cobras, won the tournament championship while he played almost the entire game, bringing him up to two consecutive tournament wins in my time going to South Sudan. Peter Bol has been through a lot in his young life and he’s not interested in anybody telling him what he can’t do. Never change, Peter Bol!

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Bravo Bol

Another heart-warming story, unrelated to basketball, that happened during our time in Juba was a very special friendship that was formed between our wonderful ICRC communications colleague, Niki Clark, who accompanied Malat and I from Washington DC to capture photos and video of our journey, and a little boy named Dada who crossed the street from his family’s home to the basketball stadium every day to watch the action. Dada is three years old and has a warm, sweet personality. He immediately gravitated to Niki, and any time Niki wasn’t filming, taking photos, or directing other videographers, they spent playing together while our training was going on under the blazing Juba sun. Dada took to affectionately calling Niki an Arabic word that she didn’t understand. She assumed it was some sort of pet word like auntie or fairy princess. When she finally asked someone what it meant, though, they said it translated literally to “white person.” We all laughed about that for a long time. Literal or no, we all knew the affection with which Dada delivered the description was real.

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Dada plays dress-up with Niki’s hat and glasses

The second day after meeting Dada, Niki suggested that he run home to put shoes on, as the court was getting too hot to safely walk on barefoot. Dada left for a few minutes, but came back still shoeless. It was clear that he didn’t have any to put on. Later that day, he ripped a seam all the way down one leg of his shorts. He self-consciously tried to hold it closed and was clearly ashamed of his tattered clothing. Being the selfless person she is, Niki asked Dada’s aunt if it would be ok if she bought him some new clothes. After getting the ok from his family, she had our driver stop at a store selling toddler clothes and bought Dada a whole new outfit, including a truly incredible pair of mini sky blue Timberlands. Dada came to the stadium the next day and stomped proudly around the court, showing off his giant blue boots, new t-shirt and shorts.

Thanks for making such a difference in that little boy’s life, Niki. And thanks, Dada, for doing the same for her.

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It’s gotta be the shoes!

On the last day of training before we moved into our two days of tournament play, we were just leaving our hotel and driving toward the stadium in the morning when Malat pointed out the window toward a dirt side-road and said, “Hey! Look at that guy riding the handcycle over there! We should ask him if he wants to play ball!” Though we were already running a bit late and hadn’t, to that point, made a habit of hijacking random people as a recruiting tool, we asked our driver, Dennis, to turn the Land Cruiser around and go back to where the young man was riding. We pulled over and introduced ourselves. He said his name was Alex and he was 24. We asked him, “would you like to come to the stadium to watch a wheelchair basketball practice?” He said he’d never heard of wheelchair basketball, but that he’d like that. We had Dennis drop us off, then come back to pick up Alex and his hand bike. Malat noticed prominent callouses on Alex’s knees and hands and said he was sure Alex spent most of his time crawling around the same way Malat had when he was growing up in the refugee camp. They have nearly the same degree of post-polio impairment. It was almost like Malat was looking in a mirror at what could have become of his life if he’d never gotten the opportunity to come to the US.

When Alex arrived at the stadium, we stopped practice to introduce everyone to him. All the players cheered the new arrival, and Alex’s grin was a mile wide. It turned out that the Motivation handcycle Alex was riding (which detaches to become an offroad wheelchair) was actually borrowed temporarily from a friend. He didn’t have a wheelchair of his own and, as Malat had correctly guessed, did the vast majority of his moving around by crawling. After practice, Dennis took Alex to the ICRC-supported physical rehabilitation center in Juba, where he was promptly given a wheelchair and handcycle of his own.

Alex came back to the court each of the following two days and spent most of his time in my basketball wheelchair, either pushing around or watching the games with fascination. He’s now determined to become a wheelchair basketball player and the other guys are excited to have him join. Dennis, who lives near Alex, volunteered to take him to every practice. It was a good week for Alex.

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Malat and I get our “before he was famous” picture with Alex, South Sudan’s next wheelchair basketball star

It was hard to say goodbye to all the players, coaches, and supporters, but the energy after the tournament was so positive that I have great hope for everyone’s progress. With Malat already asking when he can come back next, I can feel great things are on the horizon for South Sudan wheelchair basketball.

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Deng Garang sporting the new jerseys we brought the players from the U.S, courtesy of the ICRC

IMG_9070Beezy, who is probably six inches shorter than me, challenged me to a wingspan contest. I think he’s got me.

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This is Deng, Dada’s best friend and the most intimidating two year-old on the block