There have been exciting developments on several fronts since my last blog post three months ago. I spent two weeks in Gaza helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee lead their wheelchair basketball program to the next level, spent a week at the United Nations in New York engaging in my first round of multilateral diplomacy, supported the Indian men’s and women’s national teams in experiencing a fantastic training camp under the guidance one of the world’s top player/coaches followed by them playing – along with the Afghanistan women’s team – in their first ever international competition, and I started an exciting new job with the International Committee of the Red Cross that will see the sports program we’ve spent the last several years building take a big leap forward in the coming years. There’s a lot to catch up on, so tuck in for the highlights of the summer (so far!).

Back in May, after having spent time in Thailand, Afghanistan, and touring the East Coast of the U.S, I flew back across the Atlantic for my annual spring coaching trip to Gaza. I focused the two weeks on training each of the eight men’s and four women’s club teams that are now practicing in Gaza, as well as helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee (PPC) develop a strategy for making its wheelchair basketball program a stronger, more efficient vehicle for stimulating social inclusion for people with physical disabilities while setting it up to give its top players opportunities to represent Palestine in international competitions soon.

The players and coaches in Gaza have been working hard on improving their games over the past year, and have gathered increased motivation through watching one of their own – Fadi Deeb, a player I’ve been coaching since my first trip to Gaza in 2015 – earn a professional contract to play for a team in Turkey, which boasts one of the top leagues in the world. Fadi’s story is remarkable, and I’ll tell it in more detail in a separate post soon, but suffice to say that a player from Gaza playing professional wheelchair basketball in a league as renowned as Turkey’s was just the type of achievement the program needed in order to see its own potential for great collective achievement.
Fadi in Turkey
Fadi leading the fast break in a Turkish league game

The other breakthrough that helped move the bar in Gaza was a visit from Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, my old friend and an expert in the technical field of wheelchair basketball classification. While I was teaching the players and coaches, Ehsan was educating a group of 20 classifier candidates from around Gaza, who were studying in the hopes of being named to the five-person classification panel that would lead this discipline for all Gaza. Ehsan is a tremendous resource and a fantastic teacher, and was very impressed with the quality of the students taking part in his course. While only five were selected for the panel, all the classification trainees will be instrumental in helping the club teams accurately classify new players.

On the back of Fadi’s success and with a new cadre of expert classifiers, the PPC and I selected the first men’s national team for Gaza, with the intent of those 12 players working with two of the top coaches – Ibrahim and Mohammad – to create a new level of technical competency within Gaza, from which all the other teams and players can learn. The eventual goal – hopefully in the not-distant-future – is to have the Gaza national team compete against the national team from the West Bank and, following the competition, form the first truly Palestinian wheelchair basketball national team that will (hopefully) represent the country in international competition. We’d hoped to schedule such a competition last year, but were blocked by the relevant authorities refusing to issue the necessary permits for the players from the West Bank to cross into Gaza. We will find a way to make this happen somehow; as challenging as the situation is in Gaza, nobody is giving up.

Speaking at the UN
A week after I returned home to the U.S. at the beginning of June, I was back on an airplane, this time to represent the ICRC at the UN Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPD) at the UN General Assembly in New York. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet UN representatives and many other key figures in promoting rights for people with disabilities around the world, as well as engage in discussion about ensuring people with disabilities are actively engaged in planning and participating in humanitarian action in situations of violence, conflict, and other emergencies. I was given the opportunity to give three separate addresses during the Conference, covering the ICRC’s stance on the importance of enabling inclusion in humanitarian action as well as discussion of the work the ICRC has been doing to promote inclusion for people with disabilities through sport in countries dealing with conflict. No one booed, which I took as a good sign.UN 2017 1UN 2017 2

India’s National Teams Get a Crash Course in Wheelchair Basketball from Brad Ness
Soon after returning home from Gaza, I got an email request from Madhavi Latha, the President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). The WBFI was planning to send men’s and women’s national teams to the Bali Cup – an international wheelchair basketball tournament being held at the end of July (at which the Afghanistan Women’s National Team would also be making their international debut) – and needed an experienced coach to give their top men’s and women’s players a two week training course to prepare them for their first international competition.

The challenge Madhavi was facing was that the training camp was being funded by the Australian Consulate in India, but they would only pay for a foreign coach to fly in if the coach was an Australian. She asked if I knew anyone who might be willing to undertake the mission as a volunteer with the camp scheduled to take place just two weeks later. It was a tall order, but I  immediately had an idea. Brad Ness, the captain of the Austrailian national team and a multiple time Paralympic medalist who had shared inspiring words with the Afghanistan men’s team at their first tournament in Japan in 2015, and who had told me when we met in Brazil at the Paralympics last year that he was willing do whatever he could to support the work the ICRC and I are doing with wheelchair basketball in developing countries, was the first call I’d make.

Amazingly, but not surprisingly, Brad agreed right away. Two weeks later, his plane was landing in Chennai for two weeks of coaching in the sweltering heat and humidity of Southeast India. The players took to Brad’s gregarious personality immediately and learned a great deal from his vast experience and knowledge of the game. At the end of the camp, he helped the WBFI to select their first men’s and women’s national teams to compete in the Bali Cup.
Brad Ness 2017
Brad Ness teaches coaches and women’s national team hopefuls in Chennai

The Bali Cup
I met the organizer of the Bali Cup tournament – Rodney Holt, another Australian who has been working for several years to build sport programs for people with disabilities in Indonesia – when I was in Thailand with the Afghanistan and Indian women’s teams for the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation’s (IWBF’s) training camp for developing women’s teams in April. Rodney was excited to be offering a women’s wheelchair basketball competition in Bali for the first time and was able to recruit Thailand’s women’s team as well as Afghanistan, India, and the hometown Indonesian team. It was a perfect first opportunity for the Afghans (as well as the other competing teams) to get their first taste of international competition.

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to go to Bali with the team. Sad as I was not to be able to experience their first competition with them, I saw it as an important opportunity for their young coach, Tahera Yosoufi of the Afghan women’s able bodied basketball national team, to take on the leadership role for which I’d been grooming her over the past year and a half. Tahera was assisted by Wasiqullah Sediqi, captain of the Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team, so I knew the team would be in good hands.

Instead of showing up with first tournament jitters, the team coalesced around their shared first experience and played their best basketball yet. They won each of their games by over 30 points on their way to the tournament championship! According to Coach Tahera when I asked her how the team had interacted with her and each other during the tournament, “the players all played together and were happy and relaxed on the road, and this helped me to be focused and positive. This championship has had a great impact on us all!” It was music to my ears.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited to follow the team’s remarkable success from afar, though; the Afghan media splashed photos and video of the players all over their print and TV coverage upon their return home, hailing them as heroes for representing their country so proudly. The international media took notice as well, with NPR running an article on its blog about the team’s big victory, and several outlets having asked for interviews in the couple weeks since the tournament. The players even got invited to share tea with the first lady of Afghanistan, who was fascinated to hear their story.

Rodney summed the experience up perfectly when he told the IWBF newsletter, “This was the Afghanistan women’s first overseas tournament and they quickly became the crowd favorites with their cheerfulness, passion and skills. They presented a personal face to a country that most of us know just from the news, and unfortunately news which is mostly negative. They were great ambassadors for their country.”

It’s truly phenomenal to think back to just five years ago, when the first few female players in Afghanistan (several of whom are now on this team) started by practicing in strict privacy to keep from being observed and judged for their new hobby. What a transformation they’ve made in such a short time.

The men’s and women’s teams from India also did their country proud, bringing home bronze medals in both tournaments. They got similarly ebullient coverage of their success in the national news, and should be equally proud of the progress they’ve made in just three years of playing.
Team Afghanistan, led by Coach Tahera Yosoufi (right) takes the court in Bali

Mulkara took home the trophy as the tournament’s top scorer

Sumaya, despite being the youngest player on the team, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player

Shabona and her teammates honored the Afghan flag with their performance in Bali

Nadia (left) and Kamela brought their best games to Indonesia

Freshta (left), Farzana, Nadia, Sumaya, and the team celebrate their first title

More Excitement is in Store for the Afghans
Even with the continuing electric buzz about the Afghan women’s team’s success, the men’s team is already looking forward to its next international challenge. In late October, they will compete in the Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Championships. The qualifying tournament, even bigger in scale than the Paralympic qualifier in Japan in 2015, will take place in Beijing, China and will be the men’s team’s first chance since Japan to test themselves against the best teams from Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. I’ll be coaching the men’s team at the tournament and am so excited to see them represent Afghanistan just as proudly as their female counterparts.

A New Job and a New Era of Possibility
In July I signed a full time contract as the ICRC’s Disability Sport & Integration Advisor, the first position of its kind. By creating this role, the ICRC is committing itself fully to supporting the growth of disability sport and disability inclusion initiatives as a core part of its global Physical Rehabilitation Program. It’s wonderful to see all our work together in Afghanistan, India, Gaza, Cambodia, and South Sudan culminate in such a commitment, and I’m thrilled to be taking on what is sure to be a massive-but-fulfilling challenge in expanding the ICRC’s sport programming to more and more countries around the world.

This new, enhanced focus on sports and inclusion for people with disabilities is also a direct result of a partnership the ICRC has engaged in with Adecco, the largest staffing firm in the world and an instrumental player in helping Olympic and Paralympic Athletes transition from their careers in elite sport to the professional world. Adecco sees the potential in what the ICRC is building through its sport initiatives and agreed to be a major funding and strategic partner moving forward.

My first official duty in my new role was to join Adecco for its first annual Global Sports & Inclusion Day in the Swiss town of Nottwil, home of one of the most famous rehabilitation facilities in the world for people with spinal cord injuries. I had the chance to coach Adecco and ICRC staff in wheelchair basketball for an afternoon – along with a great Swiss player/coach, Nicolas Hausmann – and was elated to see how much fun everyone had. Working with the ICRC and Adecco to grow this program further over the next few years is going to be an incredible experience, with what we all hope will be a huge impact.
A photo with Max, the young son of an ICRC colleague, in front of a giant poster of the Mazar women’s team celebrating in Afghanistan