الجمعة، 7 مايو 2010

The power of sports can help beat the siege

Gazans need support to develop maritime sports and leisure for health

Title: The power of sports can help beat the siege

On a sunny day by the sea in Gaza it is easy to forget that this is not one of those picture postcard places where people go for a holiday of a lifetime.

Especially on Friday, which is a day of rest here, Gazans descend onto the beaches in large numbers. Families are picnicking while children and shabab (teenagers) play games and perform with jaw-dropping skill gymnastics and break dancing.

And, of course, the Gazan surfers are there. A small team of about 10 surfing devotees in their well worn wet suits and with surfboards which have seen better days. But that does not seem to matter as they masterfully surf the waves or chat afterwards happily with the kids who idolise them, holding the surfboards which they have painted themselves to add a personal touch. One of the boards, of course, was painted as a Palestinian flag.

I learn from another enthusiast for all things maritime Mahfouz Kabariti, President of the Palestinian Sailing Federation, that for Gazans surfing is more than just hobby.

'Gazans, and the youth especially, have a limited choice of things to keep them busy and active due to the Israeli imposed siege', says Mahfouz.

They can hang around in the streets and smoke shisha in the cafes but Mahfouz is determined to do everything he can to create more opportunities for the youth of Gaza that he and his friends had. 'Our lives were wasted by the decades of occupation and violence', he says.

While there is no shortage of food and other consumer goods which flow in through more than a 1000 tunnels for those who can afford it, Gaza remains almost hermetically sealed for the movement of people in and out. Not even the very ill who desperately need treatment abroad are spared. More than 400 of them died waiting for the permission to cross the border.

The siege is responsible for lots more misery. There are eight hour or longer daily power cuts, cooking gas is scarce, drinking water mixes with agricultural pollutants and sewage from processing plants Israel destroyed during the attacks a year ago.

Gazan economy has been paralysed with the majority of factories destroyed and no access to the foreign markets. Half of the workforce is unemployed and 80 percent of Gazans live below the poverty line.

Many here are convinced that the main aim of the siege is to bring Gazans on their knees and break their spirit. It has collectively and indiscriminately imprisoned everyone and deprived them of the normality of day to day life most of the world population takes for granted. A Gazan told me that while travelling for others means buying a ticket for Gazans it is a life goal.

The siege has turned Gaza into the land of broken dreams. Almost every conversation with Gazans ends up in a description of how their plans, desires and aspirations are being frustrated.

A friend told me that he won a place for the post graduate studies in Portugal only to find out that he was denied the visa. He asked the Portuguese Embassy why and they did not even grace him with an answer.

A Gazan student of journalism agreed that it is boredom and lack of opportunities which was strangling Gaza slowly. 'Young people get a University degree and start another one. What else is there to do except applying for scholarships to study abroad which very few will get?

So this is what Mahfouz is up against. He is convinced that surfing, sailing and other sea sports would help preserve young peoples' physical and mental health, including those who are disabled for whatever reason, and give them all additional life skills and motivate them to build a better future together.

'Gazans are known as seamen with centuries-long tradition but nowadays fishing is a perilous trade due to the Israeli imposed three nautical miles sailing restrictions and frequent shooting at fisherman', he says.

Mahfouz believes that maritime spots such as surfing, sailing and angling can help people cope with the isolation and overcome hopelessness and negativity which has prevailed in their lives.

His own dream, and he is determined to make it come true, is to make it possible for many more people to surf and sail. He wants to start a school and train Gazans to train others and to take part in international events as participants and judges.

'People abroad do not know what is happening here and many wrongly see Palestinians as troublemakers. We would like to show that that is not the case and that we are peace loving people who have lots to offer to the world', says Mahfouz.

The enthusiasm, the talent and the beautiful sea are all there but there is lack of almost everything else, including the basics such as experienced trainers, surfboards, sailing boats for training, wetsuits, maintenance and repair kits – you name it. On a positive note having even some of those would help.

Mahfouz has been inviting sportsmen from around the world to show support for their Palestinian colleagues. Organisers of different events are very interested but also aware of the siege and restrictions imposed by the Israelis.

However, Mahfouz is not giving up. He hopes that Gazans will be able to welcome sailing boats in its Port, if not this year, then in the years to come or that some might want to visit independently.

Palestine is already a member of the International Sailing Federation and application has been made for the membership to the International Surfing Association.

In their effort to gain its rightful place in the world of maritime sports Mahfouz and Gazan sportsman are counting on all solidarity and support they can get. If you want to get in touch with a message of support or if you can offer skills or equipment, please contact Mahfouz on palsailing@hotmail.com

You might be lucky enough to help make someone's dream come true.

Rada Dannial
Palestine Sailing Federation,