Sunday, May 19, 2013 1:10 AM
Published on: Thursday, March 14, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE - For Intisar Abou Kaoud, a 15-year-old Arab-Israeli girl, basketball became more than a game — it became a way of unifying with other Israeli teenagers despite religious, cultural and political differences.
Kaoud is one of 16 Israeli teenagers who came to the United States through a program hosted by World Learning, a nonprofit organization that works to advance leadership through education, exchange and development programs. The two-week program, which lasts from March 2-16, attempts to bring youths from different backgrounds together by using basketball as a tool to promote teamwork and communication. Of the 16 teenagers, eight were Arab-Israelis and the other eight were Jewish Israelis.
“This program is about bringing kids from different backgrounds together,” said Shahar Elyakim, a coach for the Israeli group, as well as education and basketball project manager for The Peres Center for Peace in Israel. “In the Middle East, there are kids who speak Hebrew or speak Arabic, but we’re all Israelis in this group. The point is to bring cultures together to get to know each other and speak about hardcore things that sometimes are standing between the sides.”
Though Kaoud said she is not a basketball player, the experience was one she has looked forward to with excitement for a long time, she said.
“I was counting the days to come here,” Kaoud said. “In Israel, with all the conflicts and stuff, you just want to run away to a safe place.”
When Kaoud and the rest of the group woke up on March 6, they were all greeted with the same sight—snow. It immediately became a unifying experience for the children because many of them had never seen snow before in Israel, so they all reacted similarly. For example, Guy Yifrah, a 17-year-old Jewish Israeli, said he had never seen snow before, but it was beautiful and fun to play in.
At first, Kaoud said, she was fearful of meeting the Jewish Israelis and had doubts because they aren’t connected to Arabs at all. She was pleasantly surprised when there were no arguments and everyone connected immediately.
“We really loved each other, and I felt like I belong with them,” Kaoud said. “It was really great. If we met in Israel, we’d probably talk about the stuff and have arguments and hate each other but here it was different. We talked to each other and really understood each other because we’re in this place where everything is safe and you can just speak up and say your opinion freely.”
Yifrah said he was scared in the beginning as well and there was a bit of an awkward period at first, but when everyone started talking to each other about sports and their flight, they all began to come together. He realized the Arab-Israelis were good people not unlike himself.
Throughout the first few days, the group attended events, which brought the group together even more. Elyakim said the group went to a hip-hop workshop, a karate practice and a yoga workshop. Kaoud said she was moved emotionally when she saw the White House. On the evening of March 6, the group went to the basketball game at the Comcast Center between the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The day after attending the basketball game, on Thursday, Kaoud, Yifrah and the rest of the group went to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, where they had the opportunity to shadow students on the school’s basketball teams by eating lunch with them and going to classes. After school, all of the children — the group from Israel and the school’s basketball teams — did drills in a basketball workshop led by Kevin Jones, head coach of the boys’ varsity team, and his coaching staff.
Al Hightower, the school’s director of boys’ athletics, said it was great to see everyone getting along with one another and having a great time. From the very beginning, he said, he could see friendships beginning to be built, even before everyone began playing basketball.
“When [the Israeli children] walked into the gym, I could see they were excited,” Hightower said, “but even more than that, just meeting kids their own age and seeing them in this environment was also very, very awesome.”
After participating in drills, the St. Andrew’s girls played a scrimmage against the Israeli girls, followed by a scrimmage between the boys from each group. The game between the girls’ teams ended in a 17-17 tie when one of the Jewish-Israeli girls hit a 3-pointer as time expired. When she made the shot, all of the Israeli boys began cheering together as one group.
While playing the scrimmage and participating in the drills, Kaoud and Yifrah each said that while they were playing basketball, they didn’t think about who is on what side or what background somebody comes from — they just cared about playing the game, playing as a team and having fun.
“I forgot they were Jews even,” Kaoud said. “We played and nothing else mattered.”
The day not only impacted the Israeli children, but it affected the students from St. Andrew’s as well. Marcus Adkison, 16, plays basketball for St. Andrew’s, and he said he became friends with the group right away, even creating a secret handshake with a couple of the children.
Adkison said he will remember the day for the rest of his life. He said he hopes the Israelis are able to use the fundamentals they learned in the drills when they play games back home.
Hightower said the school’s involvement began when Tom Doyle, a parent of two St. Andrew’s students, one of whom plays basketball for the school, came to him with the idea. Additionally, the school places emphasis on international events, Hightower said.
“This is what our school is all about, so this falls in place,” Hightower said. “When [Doyle] first mentioned [the event], I thought this would be a great idea to do it with sports. We do international things for a lot of different reasons within our school, but for sports, we had not done something like this. I had coaches talk to me a little bit about doing something, but this was just the ticket for us.”
Doyle said the idea for the program was not his, and World Learning formed the idea after it put on a similar event in 2011 with children from Turkey and Armenia.
The next day, Friday, the Israeli group spent the day working out with the Washington GreenHawks, a professional entertainment basketball team owned by Doyle that has played in Montgomery County since 2004.
During their day with the GreenHawks, the children participated in several drills guided by players such as Randy “White Chocolate” Gill and Patrick “Pat the Roc” Robinson. After the drills, they played in a friendly scrimmage against the GreenHawks players. Throughout the event, Doyle and the players made motivational speeches to teach the children about the importance of teamwork and overcoming obstacles.
Doyle spoke about the “ball of diplomacy.” It doesn’t matter what a person’s background is, he said, because if teammates don’t work together, the team won’t succeed. He said the program is a model of how putting people from different backgrounds on a basketball court can bring them together although they normally wouldn’t get along together.
Several times throughout the day, Gill had the children huddle up and say together, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” The phrase became a motto for the group.
“Everybody gets involved to accomplish one common goal,” Gill said. “If everybody does their best and plays their role in order to accomplish that goal, then it makes all the dreams come true and everything possible. It’s basically working together to accomplish one main goal.”
The bottom line for the program, Elyakim said, is basketball, because it brings everyone together and is a universal language.
Both Kaoud and Yifrah said the experience is one they will remember for the rest of their lives and will continue to have an impact on them when they go back to Israel. Yifrah said he will tell his friends and his community about his experience and tell them the Arab-Israelis are good people they should get along with.
Kaoud said she plans on signing up to play on a basketball team when she gets back to Israel. Most importantly though, she said, she learned to never judge a book by its cover.
“Every single person in this world has their own life-story,” she said. “You can’t judge him because he’s a Jew or the place he’s coming from. You just have to know him.”