By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; D06
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.
"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.
"I never wanted to study anything," he said. "I just thought I was going to get any job after college. After turning to basketball instead of running the streets, "I just started focusing on my studies," he said.
Tensions in the Middle East have presented the program with obstacles, but PeacePlayers continues to expand in a region where basketball rivals soccer as the top sport. There currently are five programs in three cities in Israel and the West Bank. In three of them, participants between the ages of 10 and 17 interact with children from the other group through a concept called Twinned Basketball Clubs. A fourth is centered on leadership skills; Abu Dalu is in the year-round program, which teaches 20 to 30 older teens to become coaches and leaders of PeacePlayers programs in their communities. The fifth, centered in Ramallah, and nearby refugee camps, is a single identity program that focuses on providing youngsters with leadership and life skills.
Typically, one Palestinian and one Israeli basketball team are paired to create a "twinned club." Prior to combining, the teams practice separately and are prepared for the time when they will begin playing together.
"It's important that both teams are close to the same playing level when they meet," said Tuohey. Palestinian children usually face a steeper learning curve because they typically don't have as much playing experience, he said.
During joint practices and games, Palestinian and Israeli coaches run the team together. In Jerusalem, the twinned teams play in the Peace League, which was created in 2007 in partnership with the city of Jerusalem. When PPI partnered with the league in 2007, it was the first time Arab girls were permitted to play in it.
Not everything comes easily, however. Besides a language barrier, there is often some resistance and hesitation from family members when they first hear about the program. Those concerns are often safety-related, but are overcome by the opportunity to play basketball for free in a well-received program -- an opportunity many poor children never had before.
"The children come to the program to play basketball, not to meet the 'other side,' " said Karen Doubliet, the program's managing director in the Middle East. "As a free program, we are accessible to all children regardless of socioeconomic status. As a result, we bring all kinds of people to the table, even those who may be resistant to mingling with the 'other side' in the beginning."
Currently, three of the four programs worldwide -- the exception being the Middle East -- have a local person in the managing director position and the majority of each staff comprises local residents.
"As time went on it became quite clear that in order for the program to survive, it needed a local leadership and also needed to have a good measure of local autonomy," said Sbo Vilakazi, a South African native and the site's managing director. "When an American used to head up the organization [in South Africa], they could not commit to a long time here. It was difficult for them to build longstanding relationships on the ground."
The Middle East program was the first site to test a new curriculum developed with the Arbinger Institute, an international consulting firm devoted to helping people and communities settle their differences. The curriculum will be brought to the other three sites in September.
"A lot of kids believe that one kid on the other side is a good person, but every other one is a bad person," explained Chad Ford, PeacePlayers' Arbinger consultant. "And they then carve out these narrow exceptions. What this curriculum is doing is reversing that process. It allows them to consider the possibility that the others can be good people too."
The program began in the Tuohey basement in 2000. Sean, a former player at Lehigh University, had returned from playing professional basketball in Northern Ireland with a vision of utilizing the sport to break down barriers in communities. He pitched the idea to his brother Brendan, a former player at Colgate, and their father, Mark Tuohey, the former D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chair. PeacePlayers International, then known as Playing for Peace, was launched in South Africa in 2001, on a $7,000 budget.
Today PPI operates on a $2.5 million budget, a significant portion of which is raised in the communities served. Its partners now include the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Adidas, the American Ireland Fund and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which funds the new curriculum and the programs in South Africa and Cyprus.
A board of directors, established in 2004, includes the likes of Ford, agents Ron Shapiro and Arn Tellem, San Antonio Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford, and former NBA general managers Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry.
Two members of the Northern Ireland program were recognized with the Arthur Ashe Award at the 2007 ESPYs and Brendan Tuohey, who took over for his brother in 2007, hopes the recognition will help the organization expand. "We're still battling for dollars," Tuohey said. "A key for us after this initial success that we're continuing to build on is proving what we're doing works."