It’s not often you witness the dreams of young Palestinian soccer players come true on West of Ireland fields, but after a three year wait a group of 14 boys from Gaza found themselves on cloud nine on Friday night.
Three weeks after the crushing disappointment of being refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, the youngsters from the Al-Helal Football Academy were special guests of Galway United Football Club for their biggest home game of the year against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC.
After welcoming the two teams onto the pitch before the televised game at Eamon Deacy Park, the talented young footballers got to showcase their talents before Galway United’s biggest crowd of the season at half-time.
Not only did Galway beat Dundalk in a thrilling encounter, the boys from Gaza were invited to a special reception to meet the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.
|The Gaza boys form a guard of honour for the Galway|
United and Dundalk players. Photo; Sean Ryan.
During the game, fans across the entire main stand rose to their feet to chant “Stand Up for Palestine!” to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the boys and their two adult coaches.
Members of Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal academy had been planning the ten day trip for three years, but had to cancel the entire schedule when the travelling party were denied exit visas just before they were due to travel.
Eventually, almost three weeks after the trip was called off, the Israeli authorities allowed 14 of the 15 boys on the squad to travel, along with two of the seven adults who were supposed to accompany them to Ireland.
Last minute plans were put in place to reschedule the tour, which saw the boys from Gaza take on – and beat – much bigger boys from clubs throughout Ireland in a series of four games. Aged between ten and 14, the Gaza boys impressed soccer coaches across Ireland with their skills. They won all four games on the tour.
“The trip was worth all the trouble, because it was the first trip outside of Gaza for all the children, and it gave them an experience they never felt before,” said team coach Mohammed Al Rawagh.
“The three week delay – and not knowing if we would be coming – put some extra mental pressure on the kids. They were very disappointed when they were not given permission to leave Gaza.
“Plus, we had exit permits denied for five of our coaches and one child. Even though they allowed only two adults to travel, we both insisted that we should do it. Ireland is far more beautiful, with its people and its nature, than we expected.”
The Al-Helal academy’s ground in Northern Gaza has twice been bombed by Israel in recent years and the players were upset when one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was refused permission to travel.
Karam was injured by shelling during an Israeli bombardment in 2009 and the players have remembered him in song and smart-phone videos throughout the ten day tour, which ended on Monday.
|Relaxing after another big win in Kinvara.|
Photo; Andrew Downes.
“Even though he suffered terribly, Karam is one of their best players,” said Zoe Lawlor of Gaza Action Ireland. “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?”
Only one of the players, Mohanad Auda, can speak English. He earned the nickname of “Google” during the ten day trip, because he was called upon so often to translate for his academy team-mates when they engaged with Irish children.
“It’s so nice and so sweet here. I am happy. I am having fun in Ireland. The best parts have been playing against the Irish teams and going to the big Irish football game. I’m excited because I am playing outside Gaza. The Irish people have been so nice and so friendly,” said Mohaned.
Speaking through an interpreter, team captain Khaled Gouda said he was determined to represent Palestine with pride by playing his best against the Irish team. They won all six games against Ballybrack FC (Dublin), Pike Rovers (Limerick), Kinvara United (Galway) and three teams team from Nenagh, Co Tipperary.
“I’m enjoying being in Ireland and I’m thinking that I want to show the best of what I have so that people can see the talents of Palestinian children. It is a great feeling to represent Palestine and I have to be up to this responsibility,” said Khaled.
“In Gaza, we love to watch European football and we enjoy it. It’s a lovely feeling, being in Ireland, but I also miss my country. I miss Gaza. The fields here are very different from the fields in Gaza. We have natural grass, but it is not as good as this. Our natural grass in Gaza has more bumps, but it is more smooth here.”
The boys’ trip was featured on RTE television, the Irish State broadcaster. On the following day, Khaled was taken aback to be mobbed by well-wishers when the team enjoyed a walk in Dublin city centre.
“Many people came up and greeted us and invited us even for lunch on the street. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt a little bit famous, but it’s a tiring feeling because everybody wants to take pictures wherever we go. We want our borders to be open and to be free so that people in Gaza who want to come to Ireland, or any other place, can do so,” he said.
Khaled relished the atmosphere at the Galway United stadium and was delighted to meet the President of Ireland after the game.
The Chairman of the Academy, Ayed Abu-Ramadan, said it had been difficult for two adults to look after the 14 boys, as seven adults – including a child psychologist – were originally supposed to travel.
Many of the boys on the team were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.
“We have been working on this for the past three years and we had been unable to get our team out of Gaza, so finally we got our team out of Gaza. It’s the first time we came here to Ireland. The results have been fantastic. It has given us hope for future operations like this,” said Ayed.
“It’s good for Irish people to meet Palestinians, to talk about their lives in Palestine, and to feel their suffering first hand. And it’s good for our players to see what Ireland is like. It’s not just the 14 players. Their friends, families, and neighbours were in continuous contact with the children on their smart phones throughout the trip and they are learning about Ireland.”
The Galway leg of the trip was organised by a small committee in Kinvara, a small village in which the entire community supported a boycott of Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014.
Local organiser Vicky Donnelly said she was amazed by the offers of support once it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team was going to Galway.
|Leaving Dublin Airport ... with hurley sticks and Galway|
“It’s actually brought tears to our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Ireland for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth,” she said.
At the end of the trip, an emotional Ayed said he hoped the trip could lead to greater links being forged between football clubs in Ireland and Palestine.
“We are hoping to set up something more sustainable, to maintain cooperation between the Gaza clubs and Irish clubs. Our academy could become a resource for the Irish teams in Gaza,” he said.
“We have many talented children in Gaza who I expect to become professional superstars. We could become a resource for Irish teams to get players from Gaza. We would love to see Palestinian players come over and sign for Irish clubs.”