The Shebab from Gaza Came Back

They came back again, the shebab from Al Helal Football Academy in Gaza came back! Big brown eyes, big wide smiles and huge hearts, that’s what they brought to us, again. After bringing the Gaza Kids to Ireland last year and how successful and uplifting it was, we decided to do it again. The project is about practical solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza and opening up windows between here and there. We want to show the people there that although they are living under a brutal, illegal siege, with the full complicity of the international community, including the Irish government, that there are lots of people here who care and who want to show solidarity. It is also a way to raise awareness of what is going on in Gaza, in Palestine. The media here ignores the constant violence that Israel inflicts on Gaza, it ignores the power cuts, the raw sewage flowing into the sea, the mass poverty and unemployment, the chronic state of the healthcare system, the prison conditions and the daily cruelty of the siege, the occupation, the apartheid. They only talk about Gaza when it’s being militarily attacked, and then it’s through an Israeli and racist prism.

We want to share and amplify the voice of Palestinian children, to let them show how brilliant and lovely and deserving of the exact same rights as all kids they are. And we want people to see their football skills!

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It seemed like it might not happen this year, with the worsening squeeze on Gaza and the total unpredictability of Israel’s control of people’s movement, Palestinians need permits from Israel to exit and enter Gaza, with most refused and even thousands of severe medical cases denied every year. It is essentially a prison with all movement controlled by Israel.

This situation also makes planning very difficult, you have to make an itinerary with the proviso that it may all be delayed or may never happen. Until the night before they travelled, the group had no idea whether they would be granted permits to leave Gaza. When they did find out at 9 the evening before, the leader and Chairman of the Academy, Ayed, was in Ramallah and had to get to Gaza and get everyone and everything organised for the following morning. It’s amazing that he did it, that they all did it.

As always with apartheid Israel, nothing is fully ‘allowed’ and every effort is made to mess things around. None of the Al Helal coaches were granted permits to leave, and neither was one player, the brilliant and lovely Khaled Jouda who was here last year. The journey from Gaza to Amman to fly here, although not long, takes a very long time and is arduous. One child who was also here last year, the lovely Yousef Jendaya, was turned back at the Erez crossing, despite having a permit to travel. Imagine the disappointment of that for him, he had to leave the group and go home, he was so upset, what cruelty to do that to a child. And every time you wonder why they do it, why do they behave like this? And it’s because they can, because cruelty is the default and, at all times, power and control must be exercised.  Due to the hold ups and questioning, the group missed their flight and had to scramble to find somewhere to stay late night in Amman and we had to try to find new flights, 21 of them, the next day.

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But they came, they came, and, despite that extra long, tiring journey and arriving into Dublin at 7.25 am, they played football that morning – against the Iveagh Trust and on Sandymount Strand. And they posed for photos and did media and smiled and played football and hurling, they had to be dragged in out of the rain. Their energy, enthusiasm and resilience was constant throughout the trip, they are the absolute best.

The reception the kids get all over Ireland is heartwarming, people are really delighted to meet them. They were welcomed and fed everywhere they went and we could have brought them to every county, so many were the offers. We couldn’t get everywhere but we did get to Dublin, Kinvara, Manorhamilton, Limerick and Cork. The kids played great football but they really missed not having a coach. Although we had the brilliant Azeez Yusuff with us again this year, the language barrier made coaching difficult, it is of course deliberate by Israel to prevent coaches from travelling with a team for a soccer tournament. So, they didn’t win every match this time, but they were always fast, skilled and brilliant. They also sang songs, danced, played the drums, played hurling and Gaelic football, visited waterfalls, parks, beaches, climbed walls, swam, did acrobatics and circus tricks, they had a mental shopping time in Limerick. The Shebab went to the Dubs game in Croke Park, getting recognised and acclaimed all the way to Croker. They were guard of honour for the Shamrock Rovers V Derry City game, in a great initiative by #GazaKidstoTallaght. They had met the President Michael D Higgins last year at Galway United but this year he came to Tallaght, for his first visit, especially to meet them. He made a speech and took loads of photos with the children, he chose to do that and we take it as a serious act of solidarity.

Being with the kids for the whole time they were here is a real privilege and I’m so lucky to have been able to do it. It means you get close and it’s an intense, emotional time. They are kind, funny, sweet, loving boys and they know how to slag! Last year’s bilingual ‘Nothing’ joke was a winner this year, as was a new ‘cooler’ one and the inevitable finger whirl on the high five,the craic of them. We had other jokes about bananas, my attempted banning of Despacito and the various smells on the bus. It was fun. Every night there was much running around corridors, dragging mattresses around the place, Facetime with family (usually sitting in the dark) and the mornings were a manic rush to replenish banana stocks, lash out the cheese and hummus sandwiches, and the ultimate challenge: trying to get everyone on the bus. On time. We never succeeded but Ayed, Azeez and myself gave it our best shot, every day.

This project is a real break for the kids from living under siege and this time they were much more emotional going home, I think it’s because of how much worse conditions in Gaza are now even than last year. At night, talking to the children’s families and friends online, they were almost always sitting in the dark due to only having a few hours of electricity per day. The situation there and what is being done to the people in Gaza is barbaric and it has to stop. From the solidarity shown to the group here, it is obvious that the Irish government is totally out of step with people here in its approach to Palestine. We will do this again, it’s not possible to stop something so enriching, so full of love and solidarity, and fun. This is absolutely a two way experience, in fact, it might just be more rewarding for people in Ireland, I know it lifts me up immensely.

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I miss the shebab and I talk to most of them every day online, still getting slagged…!

I want to see them again but it’s almost impossible to get into or out of Gaza. Will they be able to come again? Will all of them grow up with freedom of movement, with their rights upheld? That’s our job, to work as hard as we can to support the Palestinian struggle, especially through the BDS campaign.

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There are many people to thank for their brilliant efforts and organising, that’s for another post. This is just my personal gratitude to the kids for being, and for being here.

For now it’s #COYBFG and shukran shebab!  Ana mishteklekum. Abdelatif, Tamer, Khalifa, Abunajie, Karam,  Ahmed Abunajie, Seyam, Abu Nada, Abdelrahman Awad, Hanafy, Wael, Ismail, Motasem, Mohammed Abushar, Mohammed Yousef, Kemo, Abood Abusafia, Mahmoud.

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