Sharon Zaidenras has been working as PPI-ME’s Development Associate since April, but now it is time to say goodbye as Rifka Miyara returns from her 3 and a half month leave. Thank you, Sharon, for joining our family, for all of your hard work, and for sharing this powerful story.
Never once did I think I would work for an organization involved with coexistence in the Middle East. I grew up in a small, predominately Jewish town in the Midwestern United States. Even with the physical distance between me and Israel, I had always had an intense connection. I was actually born in Israel, but left when I was 18 months old. I had aunts, uncles, cousins and even friends in Israel. With the distance, however, I shut my eyes to the conflict. I was scared for the people I held near, but as a young person, I never really acknowledged the severity of the situation. Not until December of 2005. It was then that I realized how much my life would be affected when I lost a cousin in a suicide bombing. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and ever since, I have carried a heavy heart wrapped with guilt and anger- I never imagined it could be mended. Her death affected everyone in my family differently, but for me, it really affected my views on the conflict in the Middle East. Even though I had always wanted to go back to Israel, I avoided it for several years afterward.
I officially decided to make Aliyah (immigration to Israel) in February 2012. I had one motivation- the love of my life, Mark. I had always played with the idea of moving here to Israel, but never would have actually made the leap had it not been for him. So when I finally made the decision to come, I began to compartmentalize my life. I set my Aliyah date for April 9, quit my job, packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and headed to my Homeland to create a new life for myself.
Within the first two weeks of being here, I was offered a position as the Development Associate at PeacePlayers International – Middle East as Rifka‘s replacement for three and half months. And thus I began the endeavor of working for an organization that uses the game of basketball, combined with a unique conflict resolution curriculum, to bring together Palestinian and Israeli children. WHAT? I know zero about basketball. And even less about conflict resolution (just ask my now fiancé!).
It didn’t take me long, though, to really feel emotionally connected to the organization. I went to my first basketball session (i.e. ‘Twinning’) in a little community up north in a town called Tamra. Watching the Palestinian kids from Tamra and the Israeli kids from Zichron Ya’akov play basketball together- smiling, giggling, having fun, BEING KIDS- not thinking at all about hate, fear, or discomfort made me realize there could be no better way to solve an age-old conflict than by starting with the children. It was so natural for them to play together, despite the fact that they were on two sides of a relentless conflict. I left that twinning PROUD to be a part of such a movement.
In July, about fifteen friends of the organization came to see the unique way PPI works in the Middle East. As the Development Associate, it was my job to coordinate their site-visit, down to their hotel reservations. From the moment they got off the plane, to their last seconds in this country, I was with them. We traveled around the country, and saw the many communities PPI–ME touches on a daily basis. We met with teens in the Leadership Development Program (PPI-ME participants with demonstrated leadership potential, who at age 16 can volunteer as assistant coaches in their local neighborhoods, get involved in coach-training activities, and lead community service projects). These LDP-ers taught us about their personal experiences within the organization. They told us that over the years, their friendships have blossomed off the court, despite the fact that their parents may not be so happy about it; they are determined to communicate with one another, whether it’s though Arabic, Hebrew, English, or the language of basketball; when they first started with PPI-ME, it wasn’t about building bridges, but more about playing the game- and over time, it grew into the idea of becoming friends. Everyone was touched by their stories, including me.
On the third day of the trip, we met with a Palestinian government representative, who spoke about her desire for peace. I was amazed at what she had to say about the political positions of both sides and about the emotional toll is has had on both communities. I cried silently in my seat, less for what she was saying, more for how I could have possibly waited so long to take a stand on the situation in the country I had always considered home.
As we were leaving, Karen asked me to share my cousin’s story. I immediately said no. Not because I didn’t want to share her story, but because of my paralyzing fear of speaking in front of crowds. But then I thought to myself, I owe it to these people to let them hear her story. So I told them about how she went to a mall in the city closest to hers with a friend. And as she walked in, she knew she was walking into a death trap. And despite her efforts of getting away, she was killed. She left behind a husband and three kids, on top of parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. And there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t miss her. I told them this story to remind them that while many of us want peace, a lot of our scars are so fresh that it’s hard to let go.
Fortunately for me, I finally had the opportunity to see the conflict from a different angle. I saw the different ways basketball could really bring young people together. After all, in order to win, you have to rely on one another, use one another, and understand one another. Watching these kids play together, I have been forever impacted by their compassion for one another. I will never forget the image of two Palestinian girls sincerely excited to see their Israeli friend, regardless of the fact that they just saw her two days prior. I will never forget the love and passion of the local staff and how hard they work toward a peaceful solution. I will never forget my newfound friendships with my Palestinian and Israeli coworkers, who are nothing less than good friends and amazing people.
Thank you to Karen, Rifka, Githa, Samer, Vito, Nissreen, Oshra, Galit Shlomit, and the whole PPI family around the world for opening my eyes. I will take the message that PeacePlayers has ingrained in me everywhere I go- that children who play together CAN learn to live together. I know it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes.