Malak and Liraz are best friends. Both 18. They love playing basketball together and even off the court they’re joined at the hip.
Just two teenage girls shopping together, enjoying sleep-overs, sharing clothes and secrets about boys. That’s all normal, so why is this friendship remarkable?
One is Israeli Arab and the other is Israeli Jewish.
While it's difficult to summarise the complicated conflict in Israel and the West Bank in a few lines, essentially the country is a melting pot of cultures where politics and religion are constantly mixed together. Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli, Christian and Palestinian all reside next to each other but live separately.
Children grow up learning to fear their neighbours for past and continued conflicts and their differences. The "other" is unknown, causing fear and misconceptions.
It is with these societal prejudices that Malak and Liraz joined the Laureus Sports for Good Middle East Basketball project in Jerusalem. They've been involved for more than 5 years and became friends after a couple of months after signing up. Most of the girls say they join the programme because they love basketball and didn’t think to hard initially about playing on a ‘mixed’ team.
This team sport often creates the very first point of contact between the young people. The common training and the emotions associated with victory and defeat promote closeness, build friendships and help overcome fears and prejudices.
The girls learn about their similarities and their shared passions and interests spur a change in them, their families and communities. They become the leaders of the change for peace and research has shown that including women in peacebuilding increases the chance of resolution by 24%.
There's a story about one 13-year-old participant who on hearing negative comments and slurs about “different” cultures approached her teacher and asked if she could give a presentation on her friendship with girls from different cultures on her basketball team.
Her honest insight into learning about different cultures, religions and sharing her story of genuine friendship had such a profound impact in the class room that she was then asked to give her presentation to the whole school.
The programme also uses the game of basketball to empower young women. Sports have been associated with better physical and emotional health among teens.
Among young women in particular a link has been found between athletic activity, academic excellence and future professional success. An article in The Guardian titled Do athletes make better students' makes a good case for it.
Children who play with each other can learn to live together and tear down barriers – this is the credo of the Laureus Sport for Good Middle East initiative.
It’s taken from Nelson Mandela’s speech at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000, where he said: “Sport has the power to change the world … It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
Remember us in SA in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup and Mandela's power move as he wore the jersey and cap?
Perhaps Heni, an Israeli coach at Peace Players, says it best “… I think that if one person learned from us that you can choose to be different and choose to make a change in your life for the better, then what we did was very important.”