By Minji Hong
Through time, the Middle East and North Africa region has come to be recognized as the epicenter of instability, where civil conflict is rife, often claiming the innocent lives of many. Media coverage has definitely contributed to the public’s rising awareness over the last few decades across the globe, from the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict to the Arab Spring in 2010, to highlight a couple. However, what many fail to witness are the positive actions being taken to try to bring about change and restore hope and peace in the region by uniting people. Let’s discover how sports can act as social ventures and as a tool to facilitate the rebuilding of these 3 conflict-stricken countries in the region!
With the Israeli occupation and the scramble for complete independence, Palestinians have been constantly living under the fear of their lives being endangered. This is where sports come in and help regenerate hope among the people. For the youth, Parkour, or freerunning, has become a popular sport to exercise the freedom of movement, roaming around the streets of Jerusalem for instance, as a way to escape their reality under Israeli occupation led by Sami, founder of Palestine’s very first Parkour team in 2008. Another recent hobby of Palestinians is rock climbing. Wadi Climbing is a social venture led by two American rock climbing enthusiasts Tim and Will with the goals to provide an opportunity to discover and explore the beautiful landscape of rural Palestine has to offer through this unique healthy recreational activity that promotes fitness and facilitates interaction between Palestinians. The club has already introduced the sport to about 500 new climbers, and is currently working towards establishing an indoor gym. Last but not least, in March 2015, the Palestine Marathon held its third annual run in Bethlehem with over 3000 runners, most of which are locals. This marathon grabs unique global attention for not only having the highest participation of female runners but also with its unique mission to “take ownership of Article 13 of UN’s Charter of Human Rights: the right to movement,” when most of Palestine is under restrictive Israeli authority control. The marathon truly succeeds in congregating a mass as a symbol for unity and peace.
A country with a prolonged history of extreme divisions within not only the political sphere but among the general public into multiple religious and ideological factions, Lebanon continues to be subject to a succession of upheavals with the recent Syrian conflict increasing border tensions. In the midst of this precarious realities of the country, one woman took charge to found the Beirut Marathon Association, as a powerful means to reconfigure the dynamics among the highly polarized Lebanese population by encouraging unity and solidarity through sports. Since its first run in 2003, the organization is one of the largest of its kind in the region, by expanding to hosting an annual Women’s Race and a youth race, in addition to the annual Banque du Liban international Beirut Marathon that congregates runners from all four corners of the world. Its success was recognized by multiple platforms, such as the “Power of Sports” awarded by the international Sports press Association in 2010, and in 2011, the prestigious “Sports for Good” awarded by Laureus, a prominent organization with the aim to “harness the power of sport to promote social change.”
Following the Arab Spring in 2011, which overthrew the country’s authoritarian ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years of reign that ensued from a region-wide uprising and civil war, Libya has been struggling to restore stability. It has recently been torn apart between the Islamist and secular military powers, two opposing factions that are competing for political control. Meanwhile, sports are assuming an essential role in transforming the distraught community by recovering the active sports scene that Gaddafi’s rule had strictly prohibited, ultimately instilling high hopes for the future and peace of the country. Under Gaddafi’s oppressive rule, boxing was a sport that was considered to be barbaric and subsequently banned for more than 3 decades. However, since Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, the sport has revived, already starting to regain its success in various regional and international competitions. Despite the many obstacles the sport is facing, including the complete lack of financial support, many boxing clubs, one of the most successful ones being Ittihad Boxing Club, are determined to recover Libya’s global reputation and restore its pride in the sport. Along the Libyan coastlines, a new wind is blowing – literally. Jalal El-Walid’s kitesurfing shop, Wind Friends, which also offers lessons, has generated a new community of kite-surfing enthusiasts composed of local women as well, who surf with hijabs on, defying the prejudice against sexism. His efforts are changing the recreational scene of the Libyan youth as well, encouraging them to drop their guns and invest their energy and enthusiasm in learning a sport instead. He strives to realize his goal to make Libya as one of the most popular kitesurfing destinations.