“You were my strength when I was weeeeeaaaakkkk”

GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sam Presti, demonstrates a drill to some lady PeacePlayers.

This week’s post from the Middle East was written by none other than Managing Director Karen Doubilet’s brother, Daniel. He visited our program last week as part of the larger Board of Directors Trip attended by many high-profile guests. Below he shares his experience:

I’ve never been a great basketball player. Standing at a meager 5 feet, 6 inches (on a good day) and hailing from Toronto, Canada, I was always more suited to ice hockey and soccer. Yet despite these disappointing truths, somehow I found myself playing 5 on 5 on a sunny late July afternoon in Jerusalem. My teammates – Sam Presti, General Manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, RC Buford, General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs, Chad Ford, ESPN NBA Analyst (and Professor at Brigham-Young University, Hawaii) and Limor Mizrahi, whose reign in Israeli professional women’s basketball can be described as no less than legendary.

You readers may find yourself asking some of the same questions that were running through my mind during that game. How does someone like me end up on such a star-studded roster? What would possess these people to subject themselves to the misery of Israel’s summer climate? The invariable answer is an extraordinary organization that is breaking boundaries across Israel and Palestine to bridge social divides between, and build leadership skills for, Israeli and Palestinian children and teens – PeacePlayers International – Middle East (PPI-ME) – of which my big sister Karen has been Managing Director for half a decade. Being a huge fan of PeacePlayers International and of basketball, it didn’t take much convincing from Karen for me to make the last minute change to my plans for backpacking through Europe and abandon a week in Portugal and Paris to come to Israel and Palestine for PPI-ME’s Board of Directors trip.

Spurs GM, RC Buford coaches a young PeacePlayer.

The trip started with a quiet weekend overnight retreat at Kibbutz Nahsholim (part of a program funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative) which gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with some of PPI-ME’s participants and staff. The relaxed beach-side atmosphere at the MEPI retreat for Palestinian female teen leaders made it easy for me to get to know some of the girls from East Jerusalem, who are some of the Program’s most talented hoopsters. The highlights of the retreat included a midnight basketball game, during which I received a rude awakening at just how badly I could be embarrassed by a group of 12 – 16 year old girls on the court, and the impromptu karaoke session in which some of the girls showed off their pipes by confidently resurrecting Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” in front of a bunch of strangers – a dazzling display of the girls’ confidence, to say the least.

On Monday morning, Chad Ford delivered a three-hour workshop to educate board members, representatives of USAID (a major PPI-ME partner), family and friends about the Arbinger conflict transformation model on which much of the PPI-ME curriculum is based, followed by another afternoon in the gym of Jerusalem’s Hand-in-Hand school for Bilingual Education. At Hand-in-Hand, some of PPI-ME’s minis (the youngest group of PPI-ME participants), teenage girls and Leadership Development Program participants showed off their skills and engaged with board members to demonstrate just how well the players from very different backgrounds have learned to play together. After the formal basketball activities, the guests (who also included Brian Kriftcher, Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors, Brendan Tuohey, Executive Director and Co-Founder of PeacePlayers International, Brad Bessire, Director of Democracy and Governance Office for USAID, West Bank and Gaza, and board members of the Jewish Community Center Association – JCCA) were able ask questions to individual participants to gain some first-hand knowledge as to how much PPI-ME means to them. It was truly inspiring.

The group spent the next day in the North of Israel where we visited Zichron Ya’akov, a quaint Israeli town 35 kilometers south of Haifa, for a “twinning” (joint activity) between some of the female participants from Jerusalem and Zichron. PPI-ME has started working in Zichron as of this year. The board members and PPI-ME supporters got to see an intense game between mixed teams of Jerusalem and Zichron players, which ended in a tie after double over-time. Spectators were on their feet as the players performed in dazzling fashion, coached by Presti, on one end, and Buford on the other, who despite managing different NBA teams, have a long-time friendship, since working together in San Antonio before Presti moved to Seattle to lead the Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder). You couldn’t have scripted this type of competition.

Chad Ford's students Ryan and Mason came all the way from Hawaii to join the training.

The trip came to a close with a journey to the West Bank city of Ramallah where coach Vito Gilic’ (the “Croatian Sensation”) ran a practice for the girls from an UNRWA Refugee Camp with a little help from his high profile friends. The court in the camp school was less than perfect – the backboards need a new coat of paint and new rims, and the concrete floor is in desperate need of re-paving – but the girls were in high spirits despite their long clothes (modest dress, as is customary in many parts of Palestine) and grueling summer sun. They practiced some of the fundamentals including lay-ups, sharp passing and two-handed dribbling. The smiles on their faces dispelled any doubt as to whether or not they were having fun, and learning useful skills as well, from some of the best the game has to offer to boot. This was a testament to how meaningful PPI-ME is for young participants from across the region, especially in otherwise dismal circumstances and on both sides of the green line.

We packed in a heavy schedule during the 5-day tour, but I still feel there was much more to see and do. Hopefully this trip was a striking reminder for board members, partners and other supporters, as it was for me, of just how important PPI-ME is for all those involved and how much more support it needs to expand its reach and make an even bigger difference. As I sit here in Tel Aviv, getting ready to take off on a month long trip around Europe, I feel somewhat disheartened – that as exciting as a month-long trip to Europe will be, it will be no match for a week-long trip with PPI-ME.

P.S. If anyone is wondering how I performed in that game along-side my star-studded teammates, I took one three-point shot – and missed by a mile!

Photos: Joel Dzodin

PPI – ME is grateful for the generous support of the American people through USAID.






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