A little over a week ago, I arrived for two weeks of coaching in the Gaza Strip – my first time visiting the westernmost part of Palestine. My coaching schedule since arriving on February 12th has been absolutely non-stop, so this is my first chance to sit down and chronicle the experience thus far.

My only previous experience in Palestine was a brief clinic I conducted in late June 2014 in the West Bank city of Ramallah. One week after I returned home at the beginning of July, the most recent war between Israel and Palestine erupted. The intense fighting last summer was focused largely in Gaza, so I was very curious (and a bit nervous) to see how the area was affected, how its people were recovering, and what their attitude would be toward a visiting American. I found that, in spite of the widespread destruction across the region, the people have been wonderfully welcoming to me (the quote I’ve gotten from so many of the locals upon first meeting them is, “welcome to your second home!”) and seem committed to moving forward and persevering.

Two interactions upon arriving made me feel instantly at ease and comfortable in this new environment. First, I was met at the Tel Aviv airport by an old friend and ICRC colleague, Greg Halford, an Australian whom I’ve known since meeting him in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. Greg is an ICRC orthotist and prosthetist who was very supportive of the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and who was there to witness two years of the players’ and teams’ growth. Greg had just left Afghanistan when I last traveled there in October and November last year, so it was exciting to learn that he is now one of the core people promoting development of a similar program here in Gaza. Amazingly (or perhaps not so much, given what a small world the ICRC always seems to be), I have three other colleagues whom I’ve met in Afghanistan over the past few years that are now based here. It’s been great to see some old familiar faces.

The other friend and colleague I had the chance to immediately get reacquainted with was Ehsan Idkaidek, the head of the West Bank Paralympic Committee and my host when I traveled to Ramallah last year. Ehsan is a certified international classifier for wheelchair basketball players who has a deep knowledge of key technical components of the game, so he agreed to come to Gaza a couple days before I arrived to help educate the new coaches and managers on classification as well as to give preliminary classification evaluations to many of the existing players. Ehsan is a real leader in advancing adaptive sports in the West Bank, and it was wonderful to get to see him again as well as see him connect with the Gaza contingent in beginning to consider a way to combine the efforts of the two parts of Palestine in the ongoing growth of Palestinian wheelchair basketball.

In the two days immediately after my arrival, I conducted workshops for coaches and referees to help prepare them to take the game and the local players forward once I finish my two weeks of teaching here. Both groups were fantastic and were half made up of members of the non-disabled basketball community – including a member of the Gaza national basketball team and several well-schooled able-bodied referees. It’s always exciting for me to see wheelchair basketball being supported and pushed forward by experienced, knowledgeable people from outside the player population, and to know that this will be the case from the beginning here in Gaza makes me feel very optimistic about the game’s potential for rapid growth.

During the ensuing week, I have conducted two-day training clinics for two of the four men’s club teams here as well as a clinic for a group of the first 22 women’s wheelchair basketball players in the country. The trainings have been held at a gymnasium run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the southern city of Khan Younis, about a one hour drive from Gaza City, where I’m staying. Both the men and the women have been eager students, ready to learn every new skill and technique they can during my brief time here. For the men, some of whom have been playing for a few years, though without much proper training, this means reeducating themselves and breaking bad entrenched habits that they’ve developed learning on their own (much like their Afghan counterparts when I first started going there!). However, they have shown a real desire to improve and are willing to take constructive criticism and do their best to make changes.

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With (from left) Hamed of team Khan Younis, Ehsan Idkaidek, and Jehad, my first interpreter in Gaza (photos courtesy of ICRC photographer, Mohammed)

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Teaching fundamentals to the players from Team Shijaia

The group of women, conversely, had never played a sport in their lives and were starting at the most basic level possible; it was the first group with which I’ve worked where most of the players had never even pushed a wheelchair, much less touched a basketball, before. Their lack of experience and physical stamina notwithstanding, the women were all absolutely focused on learning how to play this game. After our three training sessions were complete, the female group engaged in a highly competitive series of games – the first time they’ve ever played in any type of competitive environment. The scoring may have been relatively low (although one player found her groove and ended up scoring all 12 of her team’s points during the two games they played, much to everyone’s delight), but the intensity was sky high. They barely know how to play yet, but these women all wanted to win! It was so much fun to be a part of their first-ever sports experience. In a powerful moment after I addressed the group following the final game, telling them how proud I was of them and how much effort they put into our time together, one of the players came forward and insisted to the president of the Gaza Paralympic Committee and all her compatriots, “We must have the opportunity to continue this. We must keep playing and learning!” The president’s response that he is 100% committed to seeing the growth of female wheelchair basketball in Gaza continue brought cheers of approval from all the players.

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Training the group of women with the help of my amazing blind interpreter, Dalal (standing in center)

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Yesterday, a storm blew in across the Mediterranean Sea and has soaked Gaza in rain – an uncommon amount for this area, from what I understand – battered it with high winds, and deposited a few brief-but-impressive hail storms. Roads are covered in water, the inside of the metal gym is cold enough that the players and I wore jackets during yesterday’s practice, and the roof has been leaking a bit. The crazy weather is supposed to continue through tomorrow night, but I’m hoping it won’t force us to miss any time together – we’re having way too much fun to let a winter storm get in our way.