Basketball Star Biyombo Returns to Middle East to Empower Palestinian Youth

 

Bismack Biyombo may be a young, up-and-coming basketball player for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, but he already understands that there is much more to life than basketball. Having gone through some tough experiences in his own life, Biyombo has now chosen to spend some of his time in the 2017 NBA offseason to return to the Middle East―where his professional basketball career had its humble beginnings―to help improve the lives of children and youth whose lives are affected by conflict, disease, and poverty. He is doing this in partnership with the organization Right To Play (RTP), which was founded in 2000 and is dedicated to this cause.

On April 22, 2017, RTP named Biyombo as the organization’s Global Athlete Ambassador. As part of RTP’s program, he is visiting Palestine and refugee camps in Jordan to meet, play with, and inspire the children and youth there. The schedule of the 7-day trip, which is currently underway, includes participating in play days, workshops, as well as visiting a refugee camp, a public school, the Embassy of Canada in Jordan, and the Palestinian Basketball Federation. He is accompanied by Roy Rana, coach of the Canadian junior national men’s basketball team. On April 25, Biyombo tweeted that he was “proud to be an ambassador with @RightToPlayIntl to help empower and inspire youth out here in the Middle East through sport #BizNation.”

The traumatizing effects on children due to growing up in occupied Palestine or in refugee camps have been widely recognized. “Our programs are helping these children to get back into school, heal from the trauma of war and displacement and to integrate into their host communities. I am sure that Bismack will both be inspired and inspire the children and youth that he meets to keep believing that they can realize their dreams,” said RTP CEO Kevin Frey in an interview for The Undefeated.

Biyombo knows a thing or two about realizing dreams. Born into a poor family in the Congo (then known as Zaire) in 1992, he did not discover his passion for the game of basketball until he was 12 years old. At times he would play basketball without shoes. By the age of 16, his talent was noticed abroad, and he was recruited to play professionally in Qatar; however, he could not make it to the team because he was imprisoned in Tanzania for not having proper travel documents. However, he soon got the opportunity to play in a league in Yemen, where he stayed for eight months. The team he played for travelled to Jordan for a youth tournament in 2009, and it was there that Portuguese coach Mario Palma noticed Biyombo’s talent and recruited him to play for Spanish leagues.

While in Spain, Biyombo was selected to play for the World Select Team (against the USA Select Team) at the 2011 Nike Hoops Summit. Here he recorded a triple-double, an achievement in basketball in which a player records 10 or more in three different criteria (points, assists, blocks, etc.). The triple-double was the first ever in the summit’s history and caught the eye of NBA recruiters. That same year, he was recruited into the NBA. Over the next few years, he played for several NBA teams, including the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, and currently the Orlando Magic. His undying spirit was especially visible during the 2016 playoff season, during which the Raptors’ team and fans often rallied behind the talented 23-year-old (at the time) athlete.

But when asked in an interview about the highlight of his career so far, this was Biyombo’s response: “The biggest highlight of my career is to be able to help others with my blessing [of being in the NBA]… me going back home and putting kids through school programs, keeping kids off streets, helping single mothers, all of these people. That’s the highlight of my career. To be able to make other people smile. To be able to use who I am as a player and as a person off the court.”

And always bearing in mind that his career began in the Middle East, that is exactly what Biyombo is now doing for the youth of Palestine and Jordan. “I’m pretty excited because it’s the first time I’m going back to that area since I left,” Biyombo said. “I’m also going back for a good cause other than playing basketball… When I got there, I was just a young kid trying to find his way in his life. Obviously, the people I got to meet there treated me extremely well. I got to learn their culture and how they lived. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I’d be here [in the NBA],” he told The Undefeated.

With a four-year, $70 million NBA contract in his grasp, Biyombo has also been contributing to the building of schools in the Congo and helping his native country in other ways as well. It has been a long journey since the days of playing basketball without shoes, but Biyombo has said that the experiences have been very valuable. “If I did not grow up in the environment [I did] back home, I probably would not know the value of things. I probably wouldn’t appreciate things the same way. Probably wouldn’t appreciate the people that work for us the same way,” he said. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is his favourite food (not even after living in Toronto!)―the last time anyone checked, he was eagerly waiting for his mother to visit him so she can make him a certain Congolese dish made of vegetables.

“When I retire, I want to say I played basketball and I was proud to do this on the court, but I’m mostly proud about doing things off the court impacting lives, not just where I’m from but in different entities where it is needed,” Biyombo said in an interview for The Undefeated. “We kind of get lost because some people want to just go back to where they are from and help. I always believe we are all connected, and I want to connect with as many people as I can. Only the Lord knows how many people I will be able to reach when I finish playing basketball.”

Written by Hassam Munir

Hassam Munir

Hassam Munir is a student and independent researcher of Islamic history based in Toronto, Canada. He enjoys looking into the past from fresh and diverse perspectives. He is the founder of the iHistory project, where he blogs regularly. To read more of Hassam's work on Islamic history, visit www.ihistory.co.