It’s the first of June and somehow my three weeks in Gaza are already about to conclude. It’s been a truly wonderful experience – one in which I’ve felt very connected to the people here. Like most things in Palestine these days, though, it hasn’t been without its challenges and sobering realities.

I spent my second week here working with each of the eight men’s club teams and the two women’s teams. I used a different structure this time than I have in the past, with a focus on continuing the development of the coaches after our four-day theoretical course that kicked off the program. Instead of setting the training agendas for the teams myself as I normally do, I sat with each coach and created a plan together so they could take an active role in analyzing their teams and deciding what they most needed to learn in my day with each of them. It was a fun approach that gave me great insight into the thought processes of the coaches – I continue to be excited by the commitment and teaching talent here. The league will have a great chance to flourish with such a solid foundation

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Coach Cashtop instructs new player, Mahmoud, on proper shooting technique (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

A few of the newer men’s clubs that have been formed in Gaza since I visited last year are primarily made up of disabled victims of the most recent war between Hamas, the governing party in Gaza, and Israel. The war took place in the summer of 2014, so those players are all less than two years post-injury. I’m continually stunned by the resilience and emotional fortitude of the people here. To lose a limb (or limbs in many cases), suffer a spinal cord injury, or deal with any other type of life-altering physical transformation, particularly as part of a war in which the affected individuals have no control, is obviously a massively traumatic event. The collateral damage can be far worse, though.

I learned that one of the new players had his family’s house destroyed in the 2014 war and lost his leg just above the knee in the incident. He was one of 19 family members living in the house and the only one who survived. To move forward from that at even the most basic level takes an inconceivable amount of inner strength. And yet, just this short time later, he has already become the captain of his new wheelchair basketball team and is a relentlessly positive and vocal presence for them on the court. I’m in awe and utterly humbled by what he – and so many of his fellow players – are overcoming in order to be a part of this basketball program.

I mentioned in my last post that we were excited to have the first official game in many years between teams from the West Bank and Gaza here at the end of my trip. We received bad news a few days ago, though, when we learned that the authorities had denied the issuance of permits for all the West Bank players to cross into Gaza. We knew there was a good chance that some of the players would be denied, but to have them all rejected was a huge, huge disappointment. I hoped – probably naively – that something as inspirational as a wheelchair basketball game between long-separated countrymen might sway the authorities to make a positive gesture. Unfortunately, it was not to be. My deepest apologies to the players in the West Bank, whom I was so excited to see again after coaching them two years ago – I will continue to work with my colleagues here to do whatever we can to ensure this game happens in the future.

The last group I worked with was the group of women’s players – about half of whom have been playing since I came a little over a year ago, but with a substantial lapse during the time in between. Many of the conversations my colleagues and I have been having with the Palestinian Paralympic Committee have focused on the need to promote the women’s game just as much as the men’s. It is challenging because of cultural assumptions about sports and whether they are an appropriate pursuit for women here – the Paralympic Committee and several clubs have run into obstacles with families of potential players not being supportive of the idea of their daughters, sisters, and wives joining teams. We’re pushing them to continue to push the issue though, and I told them how quickly the game has grown among women in Afghanistan despite similar societal pressures. The disabled women here in Gaza are much newer to playing sports, but they are quickly falling in love with basketball and – if given an equal chance to play – I know their story will begin to resonate with other women and girls and their families, hopefully prompting more and more players to join in the fun.

AP photo
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra (The Associated Press)

Abs Winston Tweet
Photo and caption courtesy of @AbbsWinston on Twitter

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Hanan shoots and scores! (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

I also got the chance to visit a brand new sports club exclusively for disabled women – the first of its kind in Gaza – and sit with the players for a couple hours discussing all kinds of things. Because it is uncommon for disabled women here to frequently leave their homes, having the social outlet of their own club is a huge step forward. The conversation was so easy and natural; they were very interested in learning about my experience as a disabled person from a different culture, and we bonded immediately. One of the many great questions they asked was, “in America, how do people look at you as a disabled person?” It was a powerful question to consider, and one I had to think about for a minute before answering. I told them that I don’t think everyone sees me the same way, but in general, I don’t really think about my interactions with people in this way, whether I’m in the U.S. or anywhere else; rather than approaching people with an understanding that they will see my disability first, I present myself according to the way I feel, not necessarily the way I look. I told them I always make eye contact with people. Once people see what is behind your eyes, they will know much more about who you are than if they only see the outer physical picture of your disability. They all nodded excitedly and agreed that this is how they will approach people from now on. Go get ‘em, ladies!

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Chatting with the members of the Al Farisad Sports Club for Disabled Women

The one other great experience I had over the last week was getting to meet an able-bodied basketball team for girls that is being coached by a couple of the wheelchair basketball coaches I’ve been working with the last couple weeks – Ibrahim and Mohammed. The team is for girls aged 15 to 18 and was just formed about six months ago. The girls were so awesome! They’ve come a long way for having only played for such a short time, and are 100% invested in their new sport. I taught them how to do dribble-spin moves during my visit to their practice – something I had to spend a second remembering how to do myself since it’s been 20 years since I last did it without a wheelchair! Ibrahim and Mohammed are doing an amazing job with the group – good luck, girls!

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Coaches Ibrahim (second from left) and Mohammed (back right) and their team of 15-18 year old girls

This afternoon I’ll have one last meeting with all the coaches to go over what we learned during our time together. Then tomorrow we have a closing ceremony that should be a really cool experience with all the players and (hopefully) lots of local and international media present. Gaza, I’ll miss you. Until next time.