Shahed Bishara, a 10th-grader from Tira, an Arab city in Israel, was a little nervous about playing squash with Jewish Israelis when she first joined SquashBond Israel at the age of 10. She didn’t think that Jews liked Arabs, but she soon realized that the Jewish children had the same concerns about her as she had about them.
“My idea was wrong about them,” said Bishara, who headed to the United States with a delegation of SquashBond players on April 11. “Now, we are like family.”
The delegation, made up of two Jewish and two Arab SquashBond players, will be in the U.S. through April 18 to visit squash clubs, synagogues, mosques and schools. They will spend most of their time in New York City but will head to Philadelphia to participate in “Squash for Social Change in the Middle East,” a program at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia on April 16 at 6 p.m. The program will include a tournament and presentation and will feature SquashDreamers, a program in Jordan that teaches the game to Syrian refugee girls.
Aside from Bishara, the delegation includes Guy Manzur, a ninth-grader from the Jewish city of Ra’anana; Boaz Hirsch, an 11th-grader whose family made aliyah when he was 13 and who now lives in Ra’anana; and Leen Fadila, a 10th-grader from Tira.
Nitzan Moree, the founder and executive director of SquashBond, said that Bishara’s journey with SquashBond — from being hesitant to play with children of a different religion to thinking of the other players as family — is typical of the players, both Jewish and Arab.
“Every kid that comes to SquashBond, quite quickly, this becomes his family and friends,” Moree said. “They really change the way they see the other side. It reflects on how they accept new ideas in their life later.”
Jewish and Arab children in Israel go to separate schools and usually live in different towns, Moree noted, so they usually don’t meet each other until adulthood, such as when they attend college or even later. Moree said he didn’t meet an Arab person until he was in his late 20s.
The lack of contact means that as early as 10 years old, the two groups of children have developed negative preconceived notions of the other.
SquashBond is breaking down that barrier. The organization gives the children a chance to see the other kids as more than just the other side in a political conflict.
This humanization really hit home for Moree a few years ago, when there was a stabbing in Ra’anana. A mother of a Jewish player called to ask if practice was still on, and when Moree told her it was, she said she would talk to her daughter to see if she felt comfortable going. The daughter didn’t have any hesitation.
“Every kid that goes through the program, it really changes the way he sees the reality around him in Israel,” Moree said. “It really gives him or her an opportunity to be someone who influences his surroundings as he grows up. We also talk to our kids about it all the time. We try to give our kids tools and knowledge of how they can make a difference in their community and whatever they choose to do in life.”
Moree has played and coached squash for more than 25 years. In 2012, while watching the Israeli National Squash championship with fellow squash players Hillel Bloomberg and Yariv Bloomberg, the three realized that squash could be a tool to bring kids together.
In 2013, SquashBond launched in conjunction with the Ra’anana municipality and a school in nearby Tira, with the goal of combining squash and education. Addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict with squash seemed fitting, Moree said, because though worldwide Muslim countries dominate in the sport, Israel’s Arab communities don’t play.
He started by reaching out to primary schools, where he showed the kids how to play the game.
In Tira, language was a barrier. Moree didn’t speak Arabic, and the children didn’t speak Hebrew, so he communicated how to play with gestures.
He was hoping 20 students would register. Instead, about 100 students signed up, so many that Moree wasn’t able to take all of them on. He brought them to the Squash Center in Ra’anana, where the kids tried out for the team.
Now, SquashBond has about 80 players, about half of them Jewish and half of them Arab, and about equal numbers of girls and boys. The group has since launched a second program in Haifa and, last year, SquashBond joined the international Squash and Education Alliance.
“We want children to start with us around the age of 8, 9, 10,” Moree said. “It’s very important they will stay for a long time. We are looking for some athletic skills, but also motivation and character.”
SquashBond is more than just a team, Moree said. It’s a community that celebrates holidays together and brings in the parents for events.
“I heard bad things about Arabs and what they did from the environment and the news,” Jewish SquashBond player Manzur said, “but now after four years, I see that I can change what I think about them.”
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