Building International Connections in a Socially Distanced World

PeacePlayers creates meaningful connections between youth around the world through long-term, face-to-face contact — so  what happens to those connections when adults and young people alike are forced to stay isolated in their homes during a pandemic?

The pandemic hit each site, its staff, coaches and youth differently. For some, COVID brought with it food shortages, housing and family crises, but one thing was universal — the sudden end to in-person contact and the intense isolation it created, as well as the challenging pivot to virtual programming. However, PeacePlayers staff and youth leaders persevered, with 77% of participants surveyed saying they attended at least one virtual PeacePlayers program each week. This is a huge accomplishment and a testament to the motivation and resilience of our youth, considering that nearly half reported experiencing difficulties in accessing PeacePlayers’ programmes due to technological challenges. Several of PeacePlayers’ diverse youth initially did not have access or the means to purchase technological equipment or data packages that were necessary for virtual participation. In a number of cases, PeacePlayers stepped in to ensure that all youth would have the capacity to engage virtually. 

For Cyprus, the pandemic provided an opportunity to connect the participants in an easier way. Since 1974 the island has been physically divided between the two communities with a UN controlled Buffer Zone between them. The Turkish Cypriot community live in the north and the Greek Cypriot community live in the south of the island. Before the pandemic, this presented unique challenges in finding a time and a place for the participants from both sides of the island to meet. But during the pandemic, thanks to the virtual space, some of those barriers disappeared. 

According to 16-year-old Leadership Development Program (LDP) participant Tulin, “Most people in LDP are not from Nicosia [capital of Cyprus], where the LDP sessions happen, and it was harder for some people to come there and fit it into their schedule. So, for us to be able to choose the time (and not have to travel), there was better progress for the team.”  

Eliminating a central location and allowing participants to connect virtually leveled the playing field for many who found attending the in-person programming difficult to attend. But why stay connected virtually in the first place?

I wouldn’t want to let go of PeacePlayers, because it means so much to me to get this far and get to know people, so I didn’t want to ignore it until we met face to face, because that would be amazing progress that would be lost by me and the team,Tulin shares. 

Tulin shows us the unexpected benefits of the virtual space locally but what about PeacePlayers’ youth-led global movement? What happens to those global connections? Enter the Virtual Friendship Games. Thanks to the generous support of Ed and Penelope Peskowitz, 2020 was going to be the first year 100 youth from all five PeacePlayers sites would have been in one place [Israel] at the same time – coming together for the Friendship Games. Having to postpone the in-person event was a difficult, but necessary decision. So much work had already been done in planning and organizing, PeacePlayers didn’t want to lose this momentum. Light bulb moment – as Tulin’s experience has already shown, young leaders were already connecting virtually, locally. Why not try it globally? 

Meeting virtually with youth around the globe helped make the world feel a little smaller and a little more connected, and created a sense of commonality, solidarity and comfort during these tough times. “Without the sessions with the other sites, I would only see the COVID situation here [in Jerusalem], so it helped me see other people, from outside the countries, how they live, what their circumstances are like, what’s going on there, or is it just like this here,” says Sireen, a 16-year-old Palestinian LDP participant from PeacePlayers Middle East.

Sireen’s Israeli friend Keren also felt that connecting virtually during the pandemic helped her feel part of something bigger. Even at a time like this, we continued – even thought we can’t fly to meet [PeacePlayers] from other countries, we kept on meeting over Zoom. We continue to meet, and strengthen our relationships – between countries, but also within our team – among ourselves.”

Learning from each other, collaborating, having fun, all are important parts of PeacePlayers’ programs. When we reflect on the lasting impact of the pandemic and in turn, virtual programming, what will we have learned? Hannah, a LDP participant from South Africa who is also 16, sums it up, It’s made me understand how everyone is human and we must love and care for each other no matter our race, religion, culture, age.There may be many challenges we have to work through in South Africa but the other countries also have their own challenges to get through and we all need to work together to overcome these challenges.”

Bailee RasmussenBuilding International Connections in a Socially Distanced World