Sport gives girls in Gaza a new outlook
By Anna Ceraldi
GAZA, 27 February 2006 – It is early morning and 16-year-old Sahar Matter is helping her mother clear the dishes before heading off to school.
Sahar and her 10 siblings live in one of the poorest and most densely-populated neighbourhoods on earth, bordering the outskirts of conflict-ridden Gaza City.
Life here is hard and the conservative environment is often confining for young women like Sahar. They can’t play outside after school and have very few safe play spaces nearby. Traditionally, sports and physical exercise have not been a priority.
Today, that is changing.
Ysor Alassar is one of hundreds of teachers trained by UNICEF to use sports as a tool to ease the stress of living with ongoing conflict and restrictions. She is the Sport Development teacher at a modern all-girls school in the heart of Gaza City.
The public school is like a second home to Sahar and some 700 other high school students. It has become a place to exercise their right to run and play – something the girls are not really encouraged to do outside the concrete school walls.
Before the Sports for Development program began, students received as little as 45 minutes of structured exercise a week. Now, the girls spend at least one hour per day engaged in sporting activities.
Ms Alassar arrives at school each morning at 6:30am to teach and supervise sporting activities for Sahar and her classmates.
It is an interesting blend of the old and the new; girls in traditional dress playing volleyball on the outdoor school courts.
Ms. Alassar says when the Sports Development program first began, many of the girls questioned her as to whether their religious beliefs encouraged physical activity. Helping her students to see the benefits of daily exercise to both body and soul has been only part of the challenge of teaching in this community.
The project, which is funded by the Canadian Government, is operating in about 200 schools in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
In addition to increased hours of physical exercise students also receive training in child rights, leadership, life skills and democracy.
According to UNICEF, sport offers a fun way to learn values and lessons that will last children and young people a life time. They promote friendship and fair play. They teach teamwork, discipline, respect, and the coping skills necessary to ensure that children develop into caring individuals. They help prepare young people to meet the challenges they will face and to take leadership roles within their communities.
At first, Sahar’s mother Ne’ma Matter was concerned about the time her daughter was spending away from home. But she soon noticed a positive shift in Sahar’s attitude.
“She likes to help at home and has developed a passion for sports and now feels she wants to play and develop herself more,” said Ne’ma.
With four more daughters to raise, Ne’ma now welcomes the changes she’s seen in Sahar.
As for the athletic Sahar, she credits the sports program with keeping her mind and body fit and hopes it will be the beginning of more positive changes for young women in her community.
“The parents would not allow us to play. But nowadays – as they say – school is our second home,” Sahar said.