Gaza revived: how an Irishman is giving hope to Palestinian amputees

Gaza. The very name evokes images of Israeli bombardment, crumbling infrastructure, keffiyeh-clad protestors standing defiantly with Palestinian flags and slingshots, and screaming children shot by snipers in a fog of tear gas and smoke from burning tyres. All of these images are the unfortunate reality of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but there remains an untapped sporting potential within the population, and one man has dared to dig it out from among the most unlikely of people: the growing number of amputees.Over the past few years, the number of amputees in the Gaza Strip has risen exponentially, particularly since the beginning of the Great March of Return protests at the nominal border between Gaza and Israel since 30 March last year. The brutality of the Israeli response to the peaceful protesters includes the use of live ammunition and tear gas, killing almost 300 Palestinian men, women and children, and wounding more than 25,000 others. In May this year, the UN stated that in the current crisis with its serious healthcare shortages, around 1,700 Palestinians face the possibility of having lower limbs amputated. All is not lost, though.Speaking exclusively to Middle East Monitor from his office in Dublin where he works full-time as an accounts manager for a housing company, Simon Baker stressed his status as a football coach rather than someone who is trying to change the politics in occupied Palestine. READ: Israel has killed 16 Palestinian children in Gaza this year  “I was there to try and create a good image,” he told me, “and the one thing I said to the players is ‘I’m not telling you to forgive, I’m not telling you to forget, but if you don’t start focusing on tomorrow and you only focus on yesterday, you’re never going to move forward’.”His mission in Gaza began with losing his own leg after an accident at a building site in 2004. The incident left him depressed and traumatised. He overcame this by getting back into sports, football in particular, where he discovered that being an amputee was no real barrier to his value as an active member of society. Since then, he has dedicated his free time and energy to teaching and helping other amputees to realise their potential as the head of the European Amputee Football Federation (EAFF) since 2015.When he first began training Gaza’s amputee football team, his intention was clear. “I don’t understand the situation, I only knew what I saw on the news, but I wasn’t there to be a politician.” He outlined to the players the many benefits that sporting activities can bring when separated from politics, namely that “you turn your life around” and that you “can become a valuable member of society… you’re representing your community. But the long-term goal is that you’re actually going to represent your country.”When Baker arrived in Gaza in April this year with a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the amputee football team had already been together since the start of the Great March protests, but did not have the resources and opportunity to develop to any meaningful extent. “It was really just a few lads having a kick around with a ball,” Baker recalled, “and it was more them just chasing the ball. It looked good, though, and they were impressive, and it was great that they had taken this initiative.”What the players really lacked was a solid structure which could help them move from being a local to an international team. “There’s a lot of work before they start playing football: we’re working on the structure, delivery, dominance; everyone has a role to play. It has to become sustainable.” READ: Sohaib and Naziha lost their limbs, but did not lose their hope  This sustainability, Baker pointed out, is the primary end goal of his time in Gaza. “When I go to a country, the first thing to do make sure that there’s good governance and that they’re registered. It’s not a case of get off a plane, here’s some crutches, take some photos, goodbye, because six months later it’s all collapsed.”With the objectives and structures set up for the team back in Gaza and maintained during his absence, Baker plans to return to the coastal territory in September to continue his mission; he has ambitious plans for the team. He wants to create “a festival of sports in Gaza”, a two-day programme of events for other disabled sportsmen and women, including blind karate and wheelchair basketball, in one of the Strip’s stadiums, bringing people together to celebrate sporting achievements with plenty of food and music. “The head of the ICRC delegation said that this sounds really good, because it’s a long time since the people of Gaza had something to celebrate.” Baker also aims to lead a marathon along the coast of the territory.Moreover, the Irishman does not simply aim to coach the team to play in Gaza; his sights are set far beyond the Strip towards an international horizon. His long-term goal is to establish a junior amputee football tea ...Read more

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