At community event, football’s ‘magic’ helps those with ties to Gaza to feel supported

Football’s “magic” is helping those with ties to Gaza to feel supported in Aotearoa.

A Palestinian team took part in the World of Cultures annual Football Fest in Auckland, along with teams from South America, Vietnam, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Pasifika and Māori communities earlier in April.

Organiser Hone Fowler said football connected people, no matter what their background or where in the world they lived.

The Palestinians taking part were well supported, with some members of other teams wearing keffiyeh or Palestinian scarves.

Fowler visited Gaza several years ago and said football meant a great deal to its residents.

He helped set up a twinning agreement between the Manukau City AFC and a football club in the Nuseirat refugee camp 12 years ago.

“We have annual fundraising efforts and connection opportunities to share some of the stories and realities and football has helped facilitate that relationship.”

By 2023, 85,000 refugees were living at the camp which has been heavily damaged during the current Israel-Hamas war.

During his two visits, a strong bond was established, he said.

“Despite our language barriers we were able to connect through the language of football and I think that’s part of the magic football can provide, that sport can provide, but particularly football because it does have such a global appeal.”

Fowler recalled football being played and the enjoyment it brought to the youngsters’ lives.

“Seeing football played in the alleys on the streets, you could see in sense that it was a it was a key part of foundation of the kids’ enjoyment of life. And that was really special and can be related to in many different places around the world. And I think that’s the power of the game.”

There were people taking part in the tournament who had strong links with those still in the Palestinian territories, he said.

One of those was Najji Ghamri, manager of a team called Free Palestine.

Najji  Ghamri

Despite its name, the players were “a good mix” – Kiwis, an Iranian, a Sudanese, a Korean-Egyptian and a few Palestinians.

His grandparents became refugees in 1948 at the time of the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic), when 750,000 Arabs were displaced, he said.

Ghambri came to New Zealand as a seven-year-old.

He is now training to be an orthopaedic surgeon and has a strong desire to return to his homeland – at least for another visit.

“New Zealand is my home and I’m very proud when I wear the fern on my jersey but it’s nothing like home home … you just have this weird feeling that you are at home.”

He said the last six months have been “crazy” as he watched the Israel-Hamas conflict from afar and he had felt “depressed and hopeless” at times.

“My dream is to go and help my people and grow my nation. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing… because my dream is to help as many people as I can.”

He hoped one day he would be able to work as a surgeon in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian Football Association has submitted a request to the sport’s world governing body, FIFA, for Israel to be banned from international football competitions due to the ongoing killing of Palestinians in Gaza. The motion is due to be discussed at the FIFA Congress 2024 in Thailand in May.

Challenges for a Māori player in a Pākehā sport

Fowler said football was a game that connected people no matter what their background nor whether they lived in central Africa or central America.

However, as a Māori boy growing up in Auckland, he initially perceived football as a sport for Pākehā and he experienced plenty of challenges on his way.

The World of Cultures event was a chance for sportspeople who experienced barriers to come together, he said.

The obstacles could be tangible, such as money or transport, or they could be cultural barriers.

The value of a multicultural society and the contributions of minority communities to the sport should be highlighted so football could be “so much more than what it has been historically in this country”.

Palestinian footballers

NZ Football’s diversity inclusion manager Hussain Hanif said the organisation was supporting the Manukau event because it wanted clubs to reflect the wider community.

“Events like today bringing all these cultures and teams and communities together, it allows us to learn through play which is football.”

Rosie Ah Wong, who was the first Pasifika Football Fern, began her career at the same grounds 45 years ago.

She said there was still work to do to rid the sport of racism, however, sport also enabled people to spend time with those from other cultures they might not normally encounter.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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