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PeacePlayers International lends assist to groups with long-standing conflicts

"There's a growing understanding of what sport can do to transform communities," says PeacePlayers founder Brendan Tuohey, third from left, with staff members Tim Guinan, Brian Cognato and Tal Alter.
"There's a growing understanding of what sport can do to transform communities," says PeacePlayers founder Brendan Tuohey, third from left, with staff members Tim Guinan, Brian Cognato and Tal Alter. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Amir Abu Dalu grew up in the village of Beit Safafa in East Jerusalem, skipping school and causing trouble on the streets with his friends. And like the great majority of Palestinians, he rarely interacted with Israelis.

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"I grew up knowing that any Jew was like an enemy of mine," Abu Dalu said, speaking fluent English in a telephone interview. "To tell you the truth, with Jews I didn't have a connection. It was, 'I hate them, they don't know about me' and it was just no connection at all."

Now, at just 17, Abu Dalu has spent four years playing basketball side-by-side with Israelis and counts Jews among his friends. He also volunteers to help coach a girls' basketball team made up of 15- and 16 year-old Palestinians and Israelis. The team will soon become one of two mixed girls teams ever to join Israel's national basketball league, the highest level of club basketball in the country. Arabs have played on Israeli teams in other parts of the country, but not in Jerusalem.

The opportunity came via PeacePlayers International, a Washington-based organization that uses basketball to promote healing between groups with long histories of conflict. In all, more than 45,000 children have been involved with the program since its inception in 2001. Over the past five years, 5,500 individuals have participated in the Middle Eastern program alone.

The organization attributes much of its success to the simple fact that children love playing basketball -- even in locations such as Northern Ireland and South Africa, where the sport isn't as popular as others.

"At the beginning I didn't know what to expect, because we didn't have any connection at all," Abu Dalu said. "I didn't have experience with [Jews] at all. . . . I hated them just for who they are. But at the end, it was just about playing basketball and it became fun."

PPI-Middle East is the third program established by the organization, after efforts in South Africa in 2001 and Northern Ireland in 2002 proved successful. A fourth location was created in Cyprus in October 2006.

All four are designed to bring together children and teens who would be unlikely to interact otherwise. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have been put together on teams, and in Cyprus, Greek and Turkish Cypriots play basketball together.

In South Africa, the program originally was intended to expose youngsters of various races to one another. But the Durbin-based program now focuses more on HIV/AIDS prevention and life skills -- an issue its local leaders believe is a more immediate threat to South African youth -- and socioeconomic divides, as well as racial issues.

Brendan Tuohey, one of the program's founders, said children form bonds under the pressure of competition, because camaraderie is essential to winning on the court.

"There's a growing understanding of what sport can do to transform communities, whether we're talking about peace-building, health education [or] leadership development," said Tuohey, who created the program with his brother Sean.

Abu Dalu went from a troublemaker with no thought about his future to a high school graduate who hopes to study medicine at a school in Hungary. Growing up, he never envisioned himself in college.


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