When I arrived in Tel Aviv in October, I thought the following three months would play out like this: classes, internship, research, some new casual friends, and an anecdote or two about what I would be studying – “conflict in the Middle East.” It seemed like a typical semester abroad. But that’s not what I wanted from my time here. I wanted a deeper connection with this place, a more nuanced understanding of what ails it, and an intimate group of peers to inform my travel and studies. Perhaps more than all of that, I wanted to really get to the heart of my research on sports for peacebuilding. I wanted to see firsthand whether and how all the things I’d been reading about play out in real life and in such an intense place.
Ultimate Peace brought all of that together. I started coaching during my second week in Tel Aviv and it quickly became my main purpose for being here. As an Ultimate player with some experience in the Middle East and in Africa, I had been watching UP for years, impressed by the progress they had made from that initial summer camp to include a year-long program and peer leadership training. I was ecstatic when I was invited to be a part of that.
So for the past three months, I coached in two communities regularly – one Jewish and one Arab – plus four others once or twice. I had the honor of facilitating an event that brought together 25 Jewish and 25 Arab 9th graders for the first time. Most recently, I participated in a day-long coaches training that looks to be taking the year-long program to entirely new levels of engagement and sustainability. And countless times, I had meaningful conversations with the coaches and staff about our roles as coaches and how we all play out our lives. I met so many kids who were inspiring and heartwarming, but also sometimes frustrated and confused.
I myself was sometimes frustrated or confused. That’s the nature of this work, especially when it’s embedded into our daily lives. Sometimes a key won’t turn in a lock and we can’t get in to practice facilities. Sometimes your car gets stuck in the mud on the way home. Sometimes fields have to be re-seeded and we have to hold practice on tiny basketball courts for months. Sometimes kids (and coaches) can be grumpy or just not feeling it that day. But every single time, without fail, someone laughs, someone grows, and UP continues to make a difference for individuals and communities.
UP has certainly made a difference in my life. As a Master’s student, I am focusing two semesters of intense research on conflict and on Sports for Development and Peace (SDP). I have always believed in the power of sports to build community, but some of my research has started to show me the downsides and the gaps in what we know, some of which can be very discouraging. Coaching with UP reinvigorated my belief in Ultimate as a unique tool within the SDP field. There will always be room for improvement, and what I see at UP is a genuine desire to make those improvements and to use this sport to help people make the future they want for themselves. I have seen that I can both deeply believe in something – even dedicate my life to it – and still take a critical eye towards it, always wondering, how can we do better? What are other people doing that we can learn from? How do we know what we are trying to accomplish and whether we’ve accomplished it?
During these past three months in the Middle East I haven’t even come close to actually answering those questions. But I have gotten a lot closer. Coaching with UP affected me personally and professionally in a meaningful way. My time here has taught me more than I even know yet, and certainly more than I can process in this one blog post. Above all, I learned that UP has a fabulous team of supportive coaches and staff who aren’t afraid to get into the big picture stuff. UP has enthusiastic kids from beautiful communities with hope for the future of this region. As the organization continues to grow and to solidify its approach in the yearlong program, I can’t wait to see where it goes and to be a part of that in any way possible.
Thank you all! Thank you to those of you who donate to make this all possible, those of you who personally supported me on this journey, the staff and coaches who welcomed me and challenged me, and most of all the kids who are so strong and courageous and full of hope.