Over ten days in late September, we were joined in the United States by 13 members of the PeacePlayers-Middle East team: 10 young women who are current and former participants and three staff members. The ladies split their time between New York City and Baltimore, MD to visit with friends of the program and be honored at the inaugural Night of Unity event.
On the first weekend that they arrived in Baltimore, they participated in a joint activity with young women in the newly-formed PeacePlayers Baltimore program. It was an opportunity for the participants from both communities to connect with fellow female PeacePlayers from a totally different part of the world and not only learn about other cultures, but also find similarities.
PeacePlayers-Middle East’s primary goal is to develop mutual trust and cross-community cooperation between Arab and Jewish young people, cultivating grassroots and wider community support for a just and lasting peace. The young women who traveled to the United States in September varied in age and years of participation; some of them were just beginning their PeacePlayers journey, while others have been engaged in the program for over 10 years (and almost half of their lives).
In Baltimore, the community and context are different, but the power of PeacePlayers to empower young women through sport is there all the same. For many of the girls in the program, this is their first exposure to playing basketball in any organized way, due to a lack of resources in the Park Heights community. For example, when PeacePlayers arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle School in 2017, its program was the only after-school activity offered at the school and the first-ever all-girls basketball team competing in local leagues. For the young women in Baltimore to then have this opportunity to connect with their peers from the Middle East so early into the life of the program was both incredible and life-changing.
For the young women from the Middle East, this was their first-time visiting and learning about the Park Heights community. When asking Aysha, PeacePlayers-Middle East participant since 2005, what the experience was like, she said, “It was great to play together with the girls in Baltimore” and that “there was no communication between the participants [at first] and then we started to play and once we were mixed together they started to be so happy and excited… they started to snapchat and connect with us on social media.” An instant bond was formed.
Bringing these programs together was about more than running a basketball activity on a Saturday in the fall. For the team from Israel, it afforded them the opportunity to directly impact some of the newest members of PeacePlayers’ budding network of youth leaders. For the young women in Baltimore, it exposed them to the strength and determination of the young women in the Middle East, and served as a powerful example of the power of sport to unite even the most divided communities. For all of us watching from the sidelines, it gave a sense of hope that the connections being made through the universal language of basketball were leading us all to a more peaceful world.