Palestinian amputee children find freedom in football

Promising amputee football juniors train hard to present Palestine in international tournaments

Palestinian child amputees take part in a football training session overseen by Irish coach Simon Baker (L), general secretary of the European Amputee Football Federation, in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, on October 18, 2019. - The training is part of an initiative organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)
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Aisha Al Abadala is on a mission to become a professional footballer and she won’t let her disability stand in her way.

Aisha, 10, was born with a limb deficiency and has found playing football with other amputee children a rewarding experience that keeps her active both physically and mentally.

"I am glad as I am taking part in this great physical effort which improved my speed, agility and strength," Aisha told The National. "I will keep training despite limitations and amputation to achieve my dream to become a champion in football."

Like many of her team mates on the teams sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Aisha was injured during the 2014 Gaza War. The conflict lasted 50 days and killed 1462 Gazan civilians and six Israeli civilians.

Football training serves an escape from her disability as well as the haunting memories of war that continue to plague her since she lost her leg at the age of five.

The football team has made possible by coach Simon Baker, who visited Gaza for the second time in October to supervise 60 amputee footballers who were born missing a limb or have lost a limb in bombardments by Israeli forces.

Aisha and her colleagues in the five football teams Simon coaches could not find a better example in resilience and perseverance than their own coach, they said. Simon lost a limb on a building site in 2004, but instead of sinking further into despair, he led an international initiative to involve amputee children in playing football.

"I rove the world with my slogan: 'when the leg is off, the game is on'. I feel content with training those lovely Palestinian children who believe that playing football is a positive way to overcome their disability and improve their self-confidence," Simon said.

The ICRC in Palestine hosted the Irish coach in a bid to make Palestine a member of the International Federation of Football for Amputees worldwide.

Suhair Zakout, ICRC spokesperson, told The National that they launched the teams in Gaza last April and have spared no effort to help the children play their favorite sport without barriers.

"We aim by this initiative to encourage Palestinian children to accept their amputations, to contribute more constructively to their local community, and to develop a positive outlook on their futures," she noted.

The young footballers have been set a positive example by the Palestinian wheelchair basketball team, who beat Lebanon in September.

Back in the narrow playground in Khan Younis, nine-year-old Mohammed Al Najjar, struggles with his balance. He depends on his crutch, using it to anchor himself as he swing his leg at the ball to pass it.

Playing football again hasalways been a dream for Mphammed.

After being shot by Israeli sniper fire during the Great Return protests in March, he abandoned his favorite sport.

"After my amputation, I used to see friends in my neighbourhood play football together. They were very happy when they form teams, play matches and score goals.

“The only thing I could do is watch and sometimes clap and cheer when a goal is scored by a close friend," Mohammed said. "But now after training and my coach's instructions I am a fully capable player again who leads a team and scores goals."

Mohammed hopes to replace his crutch with an artificial limb in the future. “This will make my whole life better and easier," he concluded.

Families and parents of the juniors were happy with their childrens' performance at the training.

Aisha's mother Fatima said when her daughter participates in such activities she is given a positive glimpse into her future.

"I could not be more thankful for these great initiatives as they provide Aisha with the opportunity to prove herself and put her on the road of lifelong independence.”