International Soccer Festival creates level playing field

Palestinian-Israeli women's team striker finds freedom on the pitch

A fast-footed and aggressive striker, Noor Dawood understands her role is to create space, receive the ball and control it at will for a shot on goal.

On the pitch, she creates opportunity. At home as a 21-year-old Palestinian woman in the Old City of Jerusalem, there are few opportunities for her to chase. Although she knows who she is and where she's at her best, Dawood is pressed to play out her full ambitions in Palestine.

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"I'm a sportswoman. I can't spend a day without playing," she said Monday less than 24 hours after arriving from the Middle East to compete at the Vancouver International Soccer Festival.

For the first time in its eight-year history, the tournament includes a women's division. Dawood will dress for two teams, a co-ed and a women's squad, both co-national Palestine-Israel teams that include representatives from each country's national roster as well as less experienced players from shell-shocked cities from the region.

Modelled on the pan-nation World Cup, the annual soccer festival is run by a non-profit organization called One Team United, a group led by Palestinian-Canadian athlete and entrepreneur Adri Hamael, that embraces the notion that sport can render the world a more just and equal place. The Palestinian-Israeli team that travels to Vancouver each year is a cornerstone of this vision.

Drawn from Arabs and Israelis, Muslim and Jewish players from one of the most divided places on Earth where land is the source of generations-old conflict, the team of teens and 20-somethings counts 11 women and six men. Drawn from either side of the divide, the players bring their preconceptions and prejudices to realize they have a lot to learn about their new teammates.

As a Palestinian in the Old City of Jerusalem, Dawood was kicked off a strict Jewish soccer team when teammates saw the colour of her identification card. Her blue card is an Israeli government-issued document that denotes ancestry and ethnicity and grants access and entry as it denies privilege and restricts movement around Jerusalem.

What should be a 10-minute drive to her grandmother's place outside of the city diverts into a 90-minute hurdle because of four checkpoints, inconsistent security enforcement and persistent questions about identity.

Each stop comes with the same demands, says Dawood, and contradictory instructions often send her backtracking. "You know that wall," she asks rhetorically about the tall cement partition on which construction began a decade ago to segregate Israeli and Palestinian settlements. "It got more frustrating to move around, visit my friend's houses, go to school."

She missed her high school graduation and the lack of certificate contributed to her inability to pursue post-secondary courses in the U.S.

"There is not much freedom," said Dawood. "It's getting more restricted." There is only one reason, she says: "Security."

As Danour expresses her frustration and makes an effort to quell her anger, Maayan Maimon listens from the other side of a picnic table at the Hostelling International hotel at Jericho Beach where the team is staying. An Israeli player with the co-national team, Maimon has known Danour for less than a day.

"We feel very fortunate to hear what she has to say," said Maimon. "Everyday people, we don't want this. Even when she say it, it shouldn't be like that."

The political restrictions Dawood faces are augmented by cultural limitations.

Tall and athletic with soccer ball-adorned earrings, Dawood was born in Texas, lived in Brazil and has called the ancient, politically drawn-and-quartered Old City home for eight years.

She says she resists a societal patriarchy that first cloisters women in marriage and then housebound domesticity. She has competed in tennis, swimming, soccer and has raced cars in Ramallah.

"Normally Palestinian women get married and stay at home. But a woman who drives a car? Who drifts? They don't know what to make of it. I don't care. I keep going."

Poised in a black and yellow race suit last summer beside a dusty West Bank speedway funded by the British consulate, Dawood boasted to the Associated Press, "I love sports that are tough and dangerous because I am a dangerous woman."

This week in Vancouver, she said, "I've tried a lot of things to show that Palestinian women are doing something--that we can do something."

As the designated forward and expected goal-scorer this weekend, Dawood was selected with 10 other women to play for the Palestine-Israeli team. When she's on the field, her daily limitations momentarily pushed aside, her intention is clear.

"When I see the ball, I go get it."

The Palestinian-Israeli women's team plays Korea at 12:55 p.m., July 9, at Andy Livingston Park.

Twitter: @MHStewart


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