Through a gritty internet connection, Naji Mahmoud Naji, 26, buoyantly explained how he was part of the beginning of the first Palestinian amputee football team. He enthused about how he loves the sport, and how the team helps him and other people with disabilities in Gaza. The Champions Team started two months ago with four players, and already expanded to reach 15.
Naji lost his leg in an explosion in Deir Al Balah in 2007. When asked about the nature of the explosion, he said he thought it was a suicide bomber but added, “I was just a child, I did not understand the politics of it.” After the injury, Naji always remained positive. He finished his studies, practiced sports, and took part in psychological support meetings for other people who had lost limbs. “I am a positive person, so I try to help other people who suffer from their disability. For many people, it is difficult accepting the loss.”
Now, the football team is a source of support for people who previously felt isolated from society because of their disability. According to Naji, it helps disabled people to feel like they can lead a normal life, and be part of a group. “It is also very healthy to practice sports after an injury,” he added. The players all lost limbs in bombardments or explosions.
The youngest player of the team, Ibrahim, is 13. He lost his leg in an Israeli bombardment on his house in 2014. After the injury, he had become introverted, afraid to leave the house, ashamed of his injury. “The first two trainings, Ibrahim barely talked,” Naji explained. “But now he is the most enthusiastic of all. He does not miss a single training, and he is the one that pushes the others to do more.”
The team’s positive impact might extend to reach the rest of Gaza: “because we show the people that we can make the impossible possible,” Naji explained.
Abu Ghaliyun, 61, is a counsellor for the Deir El Balah Rehabilitation Society, a local NGO that supports people with disabilities. His mother lost her leg in Israeli bombardments, after the family had fled their homes and reached Gaza in 1948. “That’s why people with disabilities are close to my heart,” Abu Ghaliyun explained.
The idea of starting an amputee football team came to him last year, after seeing the sport in Great Britain and Turkey. “I thought it would be great if we could start something like that in Gaza,” he told the Palestine Monitor. “We have a lot of people with amputations because of the wars. Now, with the Great March of Return, the number has become even more.”
Abu Ghaliyun conducted research on the rules of the game, and coordinated with the Rehabilitation Society to mobilise participants to start a team. It was not always easy. Amputee football requires special crutches, and in a place with a 60% youth unemployment, even taxis and transportation are a heavy cost to cover.
The Deir Al Balah Rehabilitation Society provided support with transportation. They also provide crutches to the disabled, but not the specialised ones ordinarily used for amputee football. The financing opportunities of the Association are limited. Naji told the Palestine Monitor that current accomplishments are the result of individual efforts. The team would like to see its opportunities increased through outside support.
Ideally, the players could connect with amputee football teams in other countries to share experience and expertise. But the Israelis are not even giving Naji an exit permit to receive treatment in Bethlehem. At the same time, the team serves as an antidote against the negative psychological effects of living under siege, and the trauma of war. According to Abu Ghaliyun, the team can also help counter the world’s negative perception of the Gazan people. “The team shows that we love life. Despite our difficult circumstances, we can do anything.” Naji and Abu Ghaliyun are optimistic; “next step is creating a girls’ team.”
This article was written by Annelies Verbeek and was originally published on palestinemonitor.org