The second half of my two week trip to Gaza began with one men’s tournament and ended with another, book-ending days packed start-to-finish with training clinics in Gaza City – these following a first week spent teaching in the southern city of Khan Younis. In the relatively few moments off the court during the second week, I had the chance to meet several fascinating people and have great conversations about the future development of wheelchair basketball in Gaza.

Following the final set of training sessions for the first two club teams – those from Khan Younis and Shijaya – we held a competition with three teams made up of players mixed between the two clubs. It was an opportunity for the male players – like their female cohorts a few days earlier – to put into practice the new concepts and skills they’d worked hard to learn over the course of their two days of intensive training. The competition featured far better play than I would have expected from such raw players – they showed that they had retained much of what they’d learned over such a short time, utilizing offensive and defensive strategies that had been completely new to them just a day or two earlier. The result of the players’ collective focus was two of three games being decided by two points or less, with one going to overtime. Following the conclusion of the afternoon’s games, the players were all smiles and laughter – even those who suffered close losses were elated to have been a part of a higher level of basketball than they had played before.

After the tournament, I was graciously invited by one of the players – Fadi – to join him and his family at their home for dinner. This was an extremely rare opportunity for me; I haven’t been able to visit players’ homes in Afghanistan since 2011 due to tight security regulations, and had only been to one other when I last visited Cambodia in January 2014. Fadi’s wife prepared the most amazing couscous and chicken I’ve ever had – my first taste of homemade Palestinian food – and we all sat, played cards, and chatted through the evening following the meal. The visit was fantastic, and I can’t thank Fadi, his wife, and his brother and brother-in-law enough for being so welcoming to me. Thanks also to his adorable one year-old daughter, who provided endless entertainment by trying to push and climb into my wheelchair throughout the night while we sat on floor cushions laughing.

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Fadi and his adorable daughter

The second two club teams I had the opportunity to train – Al Jazera and Al Salam, both from Gaza City – were slightly less experienced than the first two teams, but every bit as enthusiastic about learning the game. Several of the players were playing wheelchair basketball for the first time, but had backgrounds in other adaptive sports, such as powerlifting or track & field. Their athletic histories allowed them to learn quickly, and I was happy to see so a great deal of potential throughout the group. There were also a few players who were very newly injured as a result of the most recent war between Israel and Palestine. It was amazing for me to see people playing with such vigor and joy, only learning later that they had just lost a limb or been otherwise disabled only seven months ago. It was a true testament to the resiliency of the people in Gaza; I will never cease to be awed by it.

Following one of the days of training, I was invited, along with my ICRC colleague, Greg, to meet with the Gaza Paralympic Committee. It was a very bright and motivated group, and one I feel confident will do well in shepherding Gazian wheelchair basketball forward now that it has established a firm base from which to grow. Between their commitment and the newly-formed link between the Gaza Paralympic Committee and that from the West Bank – headed by my friend and colleague, Ehsan – Palestinian wheelchair basketball should be ready to take big steps forward in the coming year.

My tentative plan is to return to Gaza in September. Before that, though, I will go to India in late April for a week, followed directly by a month in Afghanistan. It’s going to be a busy spring!