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Sports: The Missing Link to Conflict Resolution

There are millions of people who play in fantasy sport leagues every year for fun or money. Far fewer people put together “dream teams” with the hope of turning the “dream” into a reality for peace.

This reality found itself on a field in Bethlehem on a clear June day. Nearly 500 families, children, and youth leaders joined together for a day of conflict resolution and sports activities. Children laughed and smiled with delight as they ran around playing with soccer balls, balloons, and hula-hoops. 

This event, co-sponsored by Generations For Peace (GFP) and OneVoice Palestine (OVP), is one of many combining peace education and sports across the West Bank, from Jericho to Nablus to Ramallah, which have occurred since the two partnered in June 2010. 

Jadranka Stikovac Clark, a board member of GFP and director of its institute, believes that sports works because it is universal.

“The key to using sport in peace building is to focus on its best qualities — fair play, understanding, and respect — which are common across all cultures — and then integrate these into behavior change education,” she said.

Prince Feisal al-Hussein of Jordan founded GFP in 2007 and its delegates come from all over the world to receive training in peace building, working with children, and sports; including basketball, soccer, and volleyball at GFP’s annual camps in Amman. Delegates return home to implement sports and educationally-based projects in their conflict-ridden communities, after which they can be certified as Peace Pioneers.

As a result of GFP’s cascading effect — training youth leaders to instruct others within their own country — over 62,000 children were impacted with the help of 4,300 youth leaders from 46 states and territories in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Not only do sports build a strong network, but also a strong, unified identity with the goal of exporting it family and community-wide.

“We cannot talk about conflict resolution without talking about the common interest [of Palestinians],” said Mohammad Asideh, OVP youth council delegate and GFP leader. This includes “building friendships and trust from within the same group and proving that truly needing each other is the best way to solve any conflict.”

Since participating in a GFP camp, Asideh has brought together Palestinian children and their parents from cities, villages, and refugee camps to play and has organized trips to local zoos and parks, all while implementing the values of GFP and OVP.

In Bethlehem, the scene was similar. Malaka Samara, an OVP and GFP leader involved with the collaboration, said the youth leaders placed the children in one group to play despite their differences.

“Sport has magical effect on children [because] it builds a strong team of people from different backgrounds, simply because it’s fun,” Samara said.

Samer Makhlouf, executive director of OVP, said approaching conflict resolution through sports in Palestine is fairly new, but it provides an added value to the movement’s work.

“The partnership between OVP and GFP is an exchange of expertise and unique approaches, and because sport is a global language, we can breach barriers and create impactful projects,” he said.

Sports already impacts high-level politics. The United Nations’ Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) and the International Platform on Sport and Development formed to guide, research, and provide insights on how sports impacts conflict zones. A four-year UN study shows that sports should be pursued as a medium for peace education because it provides individual development, and integration of excluded communities, and helps reduce political tensions, among many other social benefits.

“Everyone has different perceptions and understandings of what has been tried and what has failed before,” Stikovac Clark said. “[Humans] are prone to conflict, and then again we really want to solve conflict and move on.” The fact is “we have the ability to move, and move toward each other.”                                                                                                  

Moving toward each other is what the children were doing on that beautiful day in Bethlehem. Perhaps they can inspire their politicians to move toward the negotiating table, too. 

Photo Credit: Generations for Peace, Palestine

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