Friday, September 24, 2010

Homeless World Cup in Rio - the Palestinians

This article, written by Matthew Stanger, was posted on the Homeless World Cup website.  Check there for many, many more stories of pride, success and global fellowship.  Photos are by Mauricio Bustamante.

Palestine debut at the Rio 2010 Homeless World Cup

Of the many success stories at the Rio 2010 Homeless World Cup, none are more important than the journey of Palestine.

The debutants have rapidly become one of the most popular teams, playing with a verve and energy that have excited the crowd. Their unity and fighting spirit is admired by fellow competitors, and the players have immersed themselves in the vast array of different cultures.

Palestine may not win this year’s tournament, but one of the biggest victories of Rio 2010 is to have them taking part.

The idea of home for the Palestine players is different to many of the other nations appearing at the Homeless World Cup. It is not about having a roof over their head at night, or somewhere to wash and eat; it is about returning to a place they have called home all their lives. A home where they want to raise families and live out of poverty.

All of the Palestinian players have come from refugee camps based in Lebanon. The conflict in the region has seen their communities displaced and forced to build a new life on foreign soil.

The Palestine General Manager, Sameh Zaidani, is recognised around the Rio 2010 venue by his beaming smile and pleasant demeanour, but he cuts a stern figure when asked about the living conditions of the team. Mr Zaidani explained:

“It is a very bad situation, their lives are extremely difficult. Their families are very poor and they have to live in tents in large refugee camps. In the summer it is like being in a microwave, at winter they are in a freezer. People should not have to live like this.”

Football is seen as a form of escape. There is a Palestine league where teams from the different refugee camps compete against each other. One thing that has been noted about the Palestine team in Rio is that the players are excellent footballers. Physically they are strong, quick and agile, and they also exhibit guile and craft in their play. Mr Zaidani described the opportunity to play in an international competition:

“The players are enjoying the matches, they can express themselves and show what they can do. They are flying the flag of their country and showing the world that Palestine footballers can be professionals too.”

“But they are happy if they win or lose,” he adds.

There is no one who can argue with that. The players are friendly and lively, and have displayed no signs of nerves at their first Homeless World Cup. They can often be seen in the stands, chatting to members of the crowd, and have made many new friends at the hostel where teams are based.

“I can see the players enjoying themselves when they meet all these people from different cultures around the world,” Mr Zaidani continues,

“At night, they sit with the South African team and sing songs. One in the African language, and then another in Arabic. When I see this, I know this experience does something great for them.”

This sentiment is shared by the team’s young striker, Adham Hammad.

“It’s been great to meet new people and enjoy this experience with others. I hope more Palestine teams can come here in the future, and not just for the football,” Adham said.

Adham lives in Borj El-Brajneh, one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps. As a young man who enjoys playing football, he hopes to be like his hero Fernando Torres. But as an adult living in a complex and challenging environment, his priorities are different:

“It’s not dangerous living in the refugee camp, but there is a lot of poverty. I don’t want to be in this situation, I wish to get back to my country, Palestine. But at the moment I cannot go home.”

A key aim of the Homeless World Cup is to establish sustainable partnerships with the nations involved and despite the ongoing insecurity facing Palestine and its people, they hope to bring another team not just next year, but for the foreseeable future. Mr Zaidani declared:

“Today, these players may be homeless. In ten years’ time they may still be homeless. Their sons may be homeless. But when I see them playing here, enjoying themselves and meeting new cultures, I know there can be good in their lives.”

[Luiz with his new scarf. This photo is by me.]
One of the brilliant and unique sights in Rio is the number of fans whose shoulders are adorned with Palestine scarves. There are also caps displaying the face of Yasser Arafat – gifts that the team have brought to share with others, and which have been warmly received.

This year Palestine came to the Homeless World Cup wanting the world to know that they exist – they leave knowing they will not be forgotten.

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