From Friends to Family: Meet Liraz

Liraz is a 16-year-old Israeli who has been a member of PeacePlayers International – Middle East (PPI-ME) for three years. Liraz plays on both PPI’s U16 and the U18 Jerusalem All-Star teams (made up of both Palestinian and Israeli girls), which both finished first place in the official Israeli national youth league this year! Liraz is also a member of PPI’s Leadership Development Program and PPI-ME’s most recent Youth Social Entrepreneurship project, a program that helps six young Israelis and Palestinians work in mixed pairs to launch their own social change initiatives that will help bring Palestinian and Israeli youth together.

Below, Liraz talks about her experience with PPI-ME:

My name is Liraz. I am Israeli and I live in a community outside of Jerusalem called Givat Ye’arim. Before PeacePlayers, I did not have any interaction with Palestinians because of the conflict and I was even a little afraid to have a conversation with them. After joining I realized the Palestinian girls on my team are just like me. They love basketball, they have sad moments and happy moments, they cry, and they have the same goals in life that I have. The more I participated the more I loved the idea and concepts behind this organization.

ECA Trip Aug 2-9 2015 Pt 2 - 1

Liraz (front) with Palestinian and Israeli friends from PeacePlayers

In the beginning my parents felt a little weird and uncomfortable about the idea.  I think my dad became comfortable after he came to a game and he saw us laughing together, cheering for each other, how we played together and were united whether we were winning or losing, just always supporting each other. I think he really liked what he saw.  Then, at the end of the last season, we had a barbecue at my house and my entire family got to meet my team and they saw how happy I am when I spend time with these girls.  My teammates were also very happy to meet my family and learn more about me.  In that moment I think my family realized how important being on the team and a part of the organization are to me.

Outside of basketball, there are so many great things and experiences that I have had that I never even dreamed of.  I had the chance to meet Villanova coach Jay Wright last summer before he won the national championship for division I collegiate basketball.  I flew on a plane for the first time and got to visit the United States for 10 days. This has been my best memory so far because I got to spend 10 uninterrupted days with some of my closest friends. There were no distractions such as school, stress, or family.


Liraz (bottom right) with her All-Star teammates and coach

I got to hang out with my friends, have lots of conversations, and really connect with everyone. We left the Middle East as friends and came back as family.

PeacePlayers has allowed me to make some very strong and powerful friendships. The organization has taught me to see people as people and not categorize them based on race,  religion or anything else that makes us slightly different.  Because I now see everyone as an individual, I am able to have tough conversations regarding the conflict or life with my Palestinian friends in a peaceful way and really listen to their point of view.

I am very happy and proud to be a part of PeacePlayers; I met a lot of amazing people and have learned lots of new things. Now I can’t imagine myself without PeacePlayers or without these people in my life.

It’s Wedding Season!

This week’s blog was written by Cyprus Fellow Sean Wright about his experience attending his first traditional Cypriot wedding and how much fun he had during it. 

This past weekend was one of the most interesting, fun, exciting times of my life. I was fortunate enough to celebrate the marriage between Gunnar Hagstrom, PPI’s Chief Program Officer and Cyprus Fellow alumnus, and his fiancé the beautiful Maria Papadopoulou, who being Greek Cypriot meant the wedding was over here in Cyprus. Also, my cousin Rory (Cyprus Fellow alumnus) and his girlfriend Amanda came over for the festivities as well, so I was very excited to BE with them and experience my first traditional Cypriot wedding.


Maria and Gunnar at the altar.

To start things off, being the great cousin that I am, I picked up Rory and Amanda at 3:45 AM on Thursday morning. I definitely scored some points for that. And they came bearing gifts! Franks Red Hot and dryer sheets (for some reason I haven’t been able to find any over here, and my roommate Jess is starting to hide her’s from me – Yes Jess I’m calling you out! ). We got back to the flat and slept a little, and then the three of us went into the Old City to walk around. Rory took us to his favorite spots around the city, where I had my first frappe which I enjoyed.


Myself, Amanda, Rory. Amanda was lucky enough to have 2 dates!

I took them by the office, which was in a new and better location from what Rory had told me. As we were walking around the Old City, we kept passing by this school with an outdoor court in which Rory proceeded to tell us about the time he had to plan a 100+ tournament by himself. This tournament in his eyes was the most impressive thing he had ever done to that date. It just so happened that we heard about this tournament 10 more times over the next couple days! As much as I joke, it does sound very impressive how he managed to pull this off and how efficient it ran.

Later that night, Rory, Amanda, and myself went to dinner with some of Rory’s favorite people from when he was here. We had a nice Cypriot mezze meal, good conversation, and heard many stories of Rory and his time here. I’m lucky to be cousins with Rory, because at that dinner I could see the impact he had on not only PeacePlayer’s, but more importantly on the lives of these individuals. I hope to be able to have a similar impact during my time here in Cyprus. After the wonderful dinner, the three of us went to an event that was held for the American contingency that made the long trip over from the States. This was a great time, where I got to meet Gunnar’s family who are all so kind and generous.


Rory, Gunnar, and myself took a break from the dancing to snap this pic.

It was impressive to see so many of Gunnar’s friends and family make the journey over here. It speaks volumes about the type of people Gunnar and his family are, and how they have impacted so many lives.

The next day was wedding day, so we got all dressed up and went to Maria’s parents house for the beginning of the wedding ceremonies. As we got there, Gunnar was in the basement preparing to get dressed. Now, he doesn’t dress himself. He has his groomsman help him out. And the strangest thing I saw was that the best man had to shave Gunnar in front of everyone. It was something so fun to watch. If I was the best man, my nerves would be making me shake all the while trying not to cut the groom because then you have him pissed off at you, but more importantly, the bride would be furious with you and that’s a scary thought! After Gunnar was shaved and dressed, it was time for Maria’s turn.


The Best Man starting the shaving process.

She looked elegant in her dress, and the dressing was finished by her bridesmaids putting her shoes and vail on. Of course, her Maid of Honor did not have to shave her. From the house, a bus took us to the beautiful wedding ceremony. The church was very old, but the inside was filled with gold looked magnificent. The actual ceremony was difficult to follow, as most was spoken in Greek. I didn’t know when to stand or sit, and as I was sitting down and the other half of the church was standing, everyone started exiting the building. I start thinking “What just happened? Is it over? Did they kiss? Should I stand or sit?” It caught me so off guard, but all in all it was a beautiful ceremony. They held a cocktail hour next to the church, where I saw Gunnar and Maria stand in front of the receiving line and greet people for almost 2 hrs. It was insane the amount of cheeks the both of them kissed. After that, it was time for the main reception at the Chateau Status, a beautiful venue located in the buffer zone. They had traditional Cypriot folk dancers come and perform which was very cool to see. Made me think of how long these traditions have gone on for, and who in the world started them. After that, we had a very delicious meal full of meats, pita, salads, and tasty treats. Once done with that, it was time to boogie.


Dance on a table? Why not!

We started dancing around midnight and didn’t stop until 3 in the morning. A mixture of American tunes with Cypriot ones was the best of both worlds. I got to twist and shout while also rocking out to songs I couldn’t understand. No matter what, if there is a dance floor I’m making my way onto it. To cap the night off, Rory, Amanda, and myself took a stretch Volvo taxi back to my flat which made us look pretty cool.

Sunday came the end of Rory and Amanda’s stay here in Cyprus, so we went to the beach for a few hours before they had to depart for the airport. The weather was great, water was cool, and good times were had. I was so happy to have them here, even if it was only for a few days. Family is very important to me, so any time I get to see them is great.

When I speak about family, it was so noticeable how PeacePlayer’s is one big family. The strong relationships that that have been built through PeacePlayer’s is so important to me. No matter the cultural differences that people may have, PPI breaks those down and brings about friendships that will last forever. That’s what I saw this past weekend. Thank you, Maria and Gunnar, for allowing me to experience such a wonderful time. I wish you both everlasting happiness.


Me and my sweet ride

PPI-SA talk Laureus YES 2016!

PeacePlayers International – South Africa Alumni Sanele Mthembu (SFM), one of the Laureus YES 2016 Experts at the camp that took place in Cape Town last week, interviews two PPI-SA coaches, Dineo Fihlela (DF) and Sphelele Dlamini (SD), who were proteges at the camp.

Sanele in the selfie with other Laureu YES Experts Nasiphi Khafu, Katlego Malaka, Bongiwe Nhleko and Banyana Banyana Assistant coach Desiree Ellis

Sanele Mthembu in a selfie with other Laureu YES Experts Nasiphi Khafu, Katlego Malaka, Bongiwe Nhleko and Banyana Banyana Assistant coach Desiree Ellis










Sanele French Mthembu is a former PPI-SA coach from 2011-2014 who is currently studying towards obtaining a Masters Degree in development studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Sanele found that working with PPI-SA gave him an opportunity to focus his energy on positive things and helped him become a better person.

Dineo Fihlela is a young confident and dedicated coach from Lamontville who believes that working with PPI-SA is a platform to greater things if you are open to the journey.

Sphelele Dlamini is a young energetic and confident coach from Molweni, who started participating in PPI-SA in 2007 while still in primary school, later joining the LDP programme before becoming a coach.

Dineo coaching a participant on a site visit at GCU during Laureus YES Camp

Dineo coaching a participant on a site visit at GCU during Laureus YES Camp











SFM – Q. How does it feel being part of the Laureus YES programme what does it mean for you?

SD – A. Being a part of the Laureus YES programme means I am growing in my leadership roles and this shows others that it is possible. Being in the (YES) programme has taught me how to go out there and teach others how bad things like drugs are so; Laureus teaches us how to change people’s lives.
DF – A. It feels like a spiritual journey, it’s a process of self-discovery basically for me. I feel Laureus is giving us opportunities we didn’t even know were available, things like the Sports Administration course are things I didn’t think I needed before but now I can see I will need them in future.
SFM – Q. How will you be applying the skills and knowledge gained to uplift your community?
DF – A. With the assistance of other leaders I am planning to do a series of career guidance sessions starting with my community in Lamontville.
SD – A. I am planning on intensifying the drive (which we have already started as a team) to recruit more people into playing basketball and living a healthy life in my community.

Dineo Fihlela, Sphele Dlamini and Nasiphi Khafu

Dineo Fihlela, Sphele Dlamini and Nasiphi Khafu



When the young leaders were asked if there is anything they would like for PPI-SA  and Laureusto know:

SD – I would like to thank both PPI-SA and Laureus because they have showed me something I was not sure about nor was I even thinking about it. I did not even think of having a career before coming here because there are many people I know who have degrees but they are not working so I felt demotivated also. But now this has changed for me and I feel more passionate and looking forward to my career in Marketing. I really don’t know how best to express how I feel but I am really grateful.
DF – To Laureus and PPI-SA, what I hear about these organizations is not even half of what they do and how they help. I would like to thank both Laureus and PPI-SA, you’ve opened many doors for me and you have also opened my eyes to many things. I have learnt that I can’t just sit and complain about something, I have the power to take the initiative. If something is not going right in my community I need to take the lead, I don’t need to wait for people who are managers and are in power. I can take the lead and make things done.
SFM – I would also like to take this opportunity to thank PPI-SA and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation for the opportunitiesI and many other young people have received. I have a better understanding of how to develop leaders, bridge divides and change perceptions to help our country become a better nation. Thank you, Ngiyabonga; Kwade lapho nithathe khona.

Laureus YES 2016

Laureus YES 2016

Leif’s Guide to life in Belfast

Hi ya, everyone! It’s Leif, the volunteer here. If you remember, I am an American serving with PPI-NI in Belfast through Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.

This summer PPI-NI will be welcoming a few new Fellows, this video highlights some of the sights and sounds of Northern Ireland.  Now, of course, there are many things missing, but hopefully, they (and you!) will find it useful. Enjoy!

An Insider’s Perspective on Twinnings


Toot Imbar (in blue center left) has been part of PPI for 6 years (Photo: Joel Dzodin)

This week, one of PPI’s former youth participants, Toot Imbar, joined PPI’s staff as an assistant coach during a joint basketball practice or Twinning between teams from Kfar Saba and Meiser – Jewish and Arab villages located two hours north of Jerusalem. Through playing and working together, Twinnings help youth learn to see ‘the other’ as ‘people’ by creating a fun atmosphere that centers on teamwork.

While Toot has participated in and led many Twinnings in Jerusalem, this was Toot’s first time at a Twinning outside of the city. Toot has been part of PPI for 6 years now, and is currently a member of the Leadership Development Program (LDP), which gives Jewish and Arab participants the opportunity to gain leadership skills, become engaged in the community, and to assume different roles within PPI.

Tootblogpic2For this Twinning however, the goal was to challenge their team identity by focusing on the role of the individual. Instead of breaking up into teams, youth played to gain individual points. The drills and games were supposed to encourage the participants to compete as individuals, but instead they chose to cheer each other on. “When a kid was trying to make a basket to gain a point for himself, the other kids on the side were clapping and cheering for him to make the shot,” says Toot.”It was amazing to see this collective effort go above the diverse identities of the group too. Arabs, Jews, boys, and girls chose to cheer each other on, instead of only cheering for players sharing their own identity.”


Toot (back, wearing a white shirt) is helping explain the next Twinning drills for the Meiser/Kfar Saba girls.

This is only Kfar Saba’s second year and Meiser’s third year with PPI. “Honestly, I’ve never seen coaches work so well together, especially considering that the teams are relatively new to the program.”

The Twinning was also the first one to be held in Meiser, and the parents were thrilled and excited to host. “The parents wanted to welcome the Kfar Saba teams. They had great food ready for the players after they finished the Twinning. It was their way of showing their culture, hospitality, and sharing delicious food!”


Great staff and coaches help set the right atmosphere for a successful Twinning! Thank you Meiser and Kfar Saba coaches!

The two communities have made great progress this year and are becoming more comfortable and friendly with each activity. The Twinning process takes time for relationships, mutual respect, and understanding to grow. Having former participants help is critical for creating the trust and sustainability necessary for long term change.

Thank you Toot, to all of PPI’s LDP and coaches, and to the Kfar Saba and Meiser communities for support of peace!

“Training the Trainers” – Teacher Lead Twinning Starts in Dunmurry

Here at PPI-NI, a phrase that is thrown around a lot is “we are always trying to work ourselves out of a job.” If there were no need for PPI-NI to continue working as a cross-community charity in Belfast and other cities around Northern Ireland, we will have done our job! Though great progress has been made over recent years, the need for cross-community work is still very much needed. As Dr. King said, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension.” However, when members of the divided communities step up and take on the responsibility for cross-community work, the potential for long-term impact and sustainability is endless.


Some selfie fun in the sun with Coach Sally during break time!!!

Last week, PPI-NI was hired through the “Shared Education Signature Project” to facilitate a 2-day intensive training for six teachers to deliver a three school sports-based cross-community program. American Fellows, Joe and Sally lead the teachers through PPI-NI’s  Institutional Capacity Building training. During the training, PPI-NI supported the teachers to create a curriculum that mirrored the staple PPI twinning program.

Yesterday, the teachers led the first of four sessions of the first ever PPI-NI teacher lead twinning program. Anyone who knows teachers or is a teacher, (s/o to Liz Smith, Joe’s mom) knows one thing about them, and that is that they are unbelievably organized! When PPI arrived on the scene to check things out this morning, the six mixed teams were already arranged by color, name tags on each of the participants seats, and the gym was set up for the rotations for the day. The theme for the first session focused on Similarities and Differences. Two teachers from each school facilitated a station on their own and the teams rotated from community relations, to team building, and finally to basketball, of course!!


Group photo outside Dunmurry Primary School

Before the day ended, the PPI staff facilitated some fun competitions between the teams, and the participants got to spend break time and lunch together. Check out this video and ask yourself the question; “If they didn’t have their school uniform on, would I be able to tell that these kids are from different communities” I think the answer will be quite obvious!!

To find out more about PPI-NI’s “Institutional Capacity Building” training program, email PPI-NI managing director Gareth Harper –



School Spotlight: Sukuma Primary School in Umlazi

Today we take you down memory lane at PeacePlayers International-South Africa. On our Blog this week we’re profiling Sukuma Primary Schools in the Umlazi Township. We had the opportunity to interview two amazing people that have been the backbone of the relationship with PPI-SA, school principal Mrs. N M Makhanya and representative Ms. N J Bulose.


Ms. N J Bulose, our longstanding school rep from Sukuma Primary School in Umlazi

Q: When did the program start at your school?

A: The program started mid-year 2002

Q:  What made your school choose PPI?

A:  Menzi Zungu, who is our neighbor to Sukuma Primary, came to introduce basketball to our school. We wanted to break the stereotype that Basketball was for white schools only.  We also saw an opportunity to bring in a new sporting code to add to our normal soccer and netball. Other schools that had the PPI-SA programme in their schools, e.g. Saphinda Primary had shared their experiences and recommended PPI-SA. 

Q: Give us the most memorable times with PPI?

A:  It was when we had a court launch. The court was donated by the Game Discount Retailer/Store with media coverage by Ilanga, the local newspaper. This was the most exciting moment for the community, the parents, the children and the Sukuma Primary School personnel/staff. 

The next most memorable moment was when Melusi Nene, a participant, was selected to represent PPI-SA and Sukuma Primary School in an international trip. He was very short in height but the best participant at school.


Most memorable moment – in 2003 Thibault Manekin from PPI SA at the ceremony for the court launch at Sukuma Primary School in Umlazi.

Q: Which members of our staff have stood out to you?

A: Menzi Zungu introduced the programme and coached at our school. He was very dedicated, came on time, and was trustworthy. Our late Shabba, may his sole rest in peace, had energy, good with children, disciplined and fun to work with. PPI has a skill of selecting and trained the coaches on discipline.

Q: What are the areas we can improve our program here at PPI-SA?  

A: PPI-SA program needs put more emphasis on the Life Skills component. Drugs and Alcohol abuse and HIV & AIDS education helped a lot of children in the program over the years.  An emphasis on Life Skills along with basketball has also proven beneficial for our students – as most pupils who participated in PPI-SA Basketball program are disciplined in school and more confident in class.


Coach Khulukane Ngcobo with his team at Sukuma Primary School last week.

Q: What makes your school unique?

A:  What makes us unique is that we’re hands on, we work closely with the organization and coaches, attend games and meetings. We have been consistent in what we do.

Q: Give me 2 words you’d use to describe PPI-SA as you have experienced working our team & programs?

A:  Amazing Organization 

Q: Give me 1 word you think your kids/students participating in PPI’s programs would use to describe PPI-SA:

A:  Cool Organization, Fun/Enjoyable Sport 

In closing, our school and the community of Umlazi would like to thank PPI-SA for their efforts and hard work in securing funds/donations to keep the program running, sneakers that were donated to participants, the medals and trophies for all the events and all the great work done over the years.

And we thank you Mrs. N M Makhanya, Ms. N J BuloseSukuma and all of Umlazi for all your hard work both on and off the court!