“Where I grew up, girls do not play sports. The family’s reputation is always on everyone’s mind. ‘What will the neighbours think?’ Shuafat is a very closed off and segregated Arab neighbourhood in Jerusalem. It is suffocating. But it had been my dream to play basketball from a young age. I started playing when I was eleven.
They came into my classroom one day, the guys from the Peace Players. They talked about the opportunity to play sports. Me and my friends went there, to this place in West Jerusalem. We did not realize we would be playing with Jews. When we found out, we decided to stick together and not pass them the ball.
I had my first interaction with a Jew after the first week. This girl passed me the ball and said: ‘Hi, I’m Hadas’. I respected her for doing this. And I wondered: how come a Jewish girl can reach out to me like that, while I isolate myself among the Arab girls?
In one of the trainings, we were not allowed to pass the ball to someone of our own community: Jews could not pass to Jews, Palestinians not to Palestinians. I froze. I could not pass the ball to a Jew. I returned the ball to our coach. Only then did I realize: as a team, you have to play together. I started to challenge myself.
I almost quit the team a few years later. It was 2014. A young Palestinian boy had been abducted from the streets of East Jerusalem by radical Jews, and had been burned to death in the forests. This boy was my neighbour. Neighbours are like family: you share everything, food, stories, life. The police shut down our neighbourhood, we could not go to school. The Israeli soldiers would come into our houses every day. Every day. The whole situation was very tense.
I felt like a traitor, playing sports with Jews. He had been burned by Jews and I choose to play with them, the killers? After some time, a Jewish girl from my team texted me: ‘Where are you?’ I replied: ‘Your people just burned my friend to death.’ I was very aggressive. She just said: ‘I am so very sorry’. She was so kind. It touched me.
I did not choose to be a Muslim. She did not choose to be a Jew. Why should she pay for that? So, I went back to the training. I told my parents: ‘We are in a high league, we need to practice. I want to continue playing basketball’. After that first practice, I came home wearing shorts and my Peace Players shirt. Everyone stared at me. I did not back down.
When I was younger, I thought: Peace Players is my mission, to play sports. But now, I am studying journalism and want to change my society by discussing issues. There is so much we do not address in our Arab society: honour killings, or even stupid killings over a parking spot. We are going nowhere, as Arabs.
Palestinians always say: ‘If God is willing’. But if you do not take action yourself, nothing will happen. Of course, I am critical of the occupation. But we have to start with ourselves. My Jewish friends are having the time of their life. They join the army, go abroad, study. And Palestinians? We go to school. Well, if you manage not to drop out.”