United in soccer

Cultural differences left off the field

For Adri Hamael, soccer is the world's great leveller. All are equal on an even pitch, that flat grassy field of competition and camaraderie.

"I believe soccer is the ultimate equalizer," said the founder and executive director of the One Team United for Development and Peace, a non-profit and non-partisan society that hosts the Vancouver International Soccer Festival.

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"On the soccer field, all social injustices drop and we play as a team, win or lose."

The Palestinian-Israeli co-national team Hamael organizes is emblematic of this vision. This year, however, the challenge to bring players to Vancouver was especially daunting. This year, the players are mostly young women. Eleven female athletes travelled to Vancouver for seven-aside soccer. Young Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jewish women who don't all benefit from the same gender rights or sexual and professional freedom known to most Canadian women.

"I could have recruited 15 men's soccer teams," said Hamael. When he told families he wanted female athletes, doors closed in his face. "I'm not sure I can send my daughter 11,000 miles to Vancouver," he was told. "Take my son. Take him. He's good."

One of those Palestinian players, Noor Dawood, 21, is one of the 11 reasons Hamael persisted. "It breaks my heart listening to her," he said. "People look at [girls and women] funny for playing soccer."

Throughout Israel and Palestine, he acknowledges that cultural prejudices across all religious lines keep women oppressed. Ancient conflicts over land entrench stagnation.

"This is where the people need help. Not the spoilt, professional athlete," he said, noting the political and symbolic weight of female athletes in tandem with the co-national soccer squad.

Hamael, 39, is Palestinian-Canadian. Born to illiterate parents living in Jordan as displaced refugees following the 1967 war, he saw his mother refuse charity handouts or U.N. food rations. This made life even more challenging, but Hamael respected her merits of hard work and self-reliance.

His life's work is bridging the divide between two of the most antagonistic forces in the world. He seeks equality and rebuffs accusations that equal footing can never be secured between the occupied and their occupiers. He persists.

Educating women is essential. So too is it essential to broaden the experiences of younger generations.

"If I can create this connection between this Israeli girl and this Palestinian girl, that connection will last," he said, emphasizing the borderless right of entry granted through social media.

"This is a generational conflict. This is the generation to make a difference. They are not occupied, occupier. They are equal teammates playing to win the tournament as one team. This would never happen there.

"There is so much dehumanization that happens on both side of the conflict. There is brainwashing on both sides of the conflict.

"I don't want to tell these kids how to think but what to think about."

The soccer pitch may be Hamael's great equalizer. He knows the goal is bigger even than the beautiful game.

"The end game is peace."

He is expecting his first child, a daughter, with his wife Melanie.

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MHStewart

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