Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dream comes true for Gaza children in Galway!

The children of the Al-Helal Football Academy in occupied Palestine had an amazing couple of days in Galway, in which they beat a local team, saw Galway United beat Dundalk FC in front of a passionate crowd, and even met the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.

Last night, it was clear that sometimes dreams really can come true when people put enough effort in to overcome barriers and obstacles.

The joy on their faces as they took to the perfect surface to welcome the two teams onto the pitch will live long in the memory.

I'll be writing a blog about their Galway visit in due course but, in the meantime, here's the piece I wrote for 'Maroon View', the sold-out match programme.

Well done to Kinvara United, Gaza Action Ireland, the Galway Community Circus, Galway United FC, President Higgins, and the entire Galway community for turning their dreams into reality.

How wonderful to see 14 children from one of the most troubled places on earth being treated like superstars!

The children from Gaza provide a guard of honour for the Galway
United and Dundalk FC teams last night. Photo: Sean Ryan Photography 


The children from war-torn Gaza who are Galway United’s special guests for tonight’s home game against Dundalk FC were all the more thrilled by their invitation to Eamon Deacy Park because they almost never made it to Ireland.

Currently enjoying a ten day Irish tour, the 14 young members of Al-Helal Football Academy were not granted the necessary visas to leave the tiny enclave despite being issued with Irish visas months ago.

Three years of planning have gone into their Irish tour, which should have taken place almost three weeks ago, but the Israeli authorities – who control all movement in and out of Gaza – were slow to grant them the necessary exit permits.

The boys were particularly upset that one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was not given a permit to travel – along with five adults who had planned to accompany them.

But the boys, who enjoyed friendlies in Ballybrack, Dublin; Nenagh, Co Tipperary; and Kinvara, Co Galway, prior to tonight’s game are relishing the attention they are getting on the tour and filming every moment for Karam back in Gaza.                                    
Relaxing after the big win in Kinvara
Photo: Andrew Downes

Trauma is never far from these youngsters, who are aged between ten and 14 years. Their ground in Northern Gaza was twice bombed by Israel during the 2014 onslaught and Karam was badly injured during a previous attack in 2009.

According to one of the trip organisers, Zoe Lawler of Gaza Action Ireland, the young Palestinians were overjoyed when they were told they would be guests of honour at a televised SSE Airtricity League game. It was the icing on the cake as they approach the end of their Irish tour.

Their visit to Co Galway resulted from amazing work by a team of volunteers in Kinvara, including Vicky Donnelly, John Griffin, and Frank Naughton; along with soccer coaches Ger Ryan (Kinvara United), John Power (Power Soccer) and Gerry Mulkerrins, who set up their visit to the home of Galway soccer this evening.

“The project has been going on for a few years,” said Ms Lawler this week. “They should have been here three weeks ago, but we had to cancel everything when the permits hadn’t been granted for them to travel.

“The permits came through extremely late, so we had to reschedule the whole trip even though they’ve had the Irish visas for ages. The boys are sad that Karam didn’t make it, as they think it’s particularly mean to refuse a permit to a youngster who was injured in 2009.”

Ms Lawler said it was poignant that only one of the 15 boys who intended to travel had failed to get a travel visa, especially as he was badly injured in the shelling.

“Even though he suffered terribly, he’s supposed to be one of their best players,” she said. “You have to wonder why the Israeli authorities did not want that child in particular to travel to Ireland – is it because they didn’t want the Irish to see his injuries?”

The boys were delighted to meet former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr in Dublin last weekend and were mobbed by pedestrians on Grafton Street in the capital after their ten day trip was featured on RTE News.

They also showed they had skills in abundance when they beat a much bigger and more physical Ballybrack FC side 2-0 on their second day in Dublin.

Observers were hugely impressed by their composure on the ball and the dexterity of their goalkeeper in the win over Ballybrack, as Galway United and Dundalk FC fans can witness during their 15 minute kick-about at half-time this evening.

“These are talented players from a number of areas around Gaza. The academy seeks to develop their talents as well as other skills,” said team manager Ayed Aburamadan this week.

More than 500 children in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded places on earth, lost their lives in the 2014 bombardment by Israel. According to Aburamadan, this ten day tour has brought hope and joy which extends far beyond the 14 boys and their families.

None of the children had ever been on a plane before and none of them had ever been outside Gaza.

The players were taken aback to see Palestinian flags flying at Ballybrack FC, after joining Kerr and the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, at Sandymount Beach in Dublin.

They took on a Kinvara United selection in the South Galway village last night, after being entertained by the Galway Community Circus.

Mr Adbelrazek travelled to Kinvara two years ago to thank the villagers who organised a community boycott of Israeli goods during the onslaught in Gaza which claimed 2,200 lives.

“It was a very small action, really, but the entire village came together when we tried to think of some way of expressing our solidarity with the poor people of Gaza,” said Vicky Donnelly, one of the organisers of last night’s welcome for the team in Kinvara.

The members of the Al-Helal Football Academy in Kinvara
Photo: John Kelly, Clare Champion.
“Afterwards, we were told that the people of Gaza were really touched by our small gesture. Now, two years on from that boycott, it’s really special to have something so positive to celebrate. We are delighted to be able to host these boys in Kinvara.”

Ms Donnelly said the organisers of the Kinvara and Galway visits have been amazed by the offers of support they have received since it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team would be visiting the city and county.

“Everybody seems to want to get involved and we can’t accommodate all the offers we’ve had,” she said.

“The support we have received has been really heartening. It’s actually put tears in our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Galway for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth.”

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