We are all just girls....

“We are all just girls.” These words repeated in my head over and over when I left the Israeli Arab village of Mukeble, where, from a short distance, you can see the town of Jenin, which lies just over the Green Line. I was there to meet with a group of 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade girls who are pioneers building the first Arab girls basketball team in their village.

”These are Halutzik girls,” said Sivan, who works for the municipality of Afula, where basketball is a hugely popular sport in the Jewish community. “When we looked at the goals for the Gilboa basketball league and said, 'who doesn’t take part,' we realized that in all the Arab villages, only one kid plays, so that means that 40 percent of our population doesn’t play.”

From that realization, an idea was born. The Afula Municipality is now funding these new teams, supplying uniforms and adding an extra hour of sports education in the Mukeble school, where before this, the girls did not play much sports. Now these teams are practicing multiple afternoons, and playing games once a week. The goal next year is to slowly combine the girls from Mukeble into teams with girls from the surrounding Jewish villages, using sports as a universal language.

The charming Aya, who shared the profound words, “We are all just girls,” explained it perfectly. Aya told me that it’s interesting to meet different people and that when her team plays three-on-three “street ball” with the Jewish teams in the surrounding area, it is a “beautiful experience.” Now that she is playing basketball, Aya says her lifestyle has changed. She is more organized, as she needs to make time to both practice and study. Her father, Hisham, who is quite supportive of Aya’s newfound love of basketball, added that her participation on the team has given Aya more confidence and self-esteem. Their coaches, Yonatan and Bashir, quickly agreed that being on a basketball team has had a positive impact on all the girls.

The SNEC partnership in Afula supports this project, as they see it as an opportunity to build bridges — and another bridge was made on the day I visited. The girls asked me to help them plant an olive tree in the garden of their school, in the hopes that this bridge will continue to flourish. I left the school, filled with hope that this generation might hold the key to creating new understanding — one game at a time.

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