March 2024 Message to our Supporters

by | Mar 15, 2024

Dear supporter,

We hope you are receiving this message at a time of personal health and safety. Given all that is happening in the Middle East and around the world, we are writing to you during this most difficult period with aching hearts and a strongly felt need to reach out. It feels like a critical moment to provide an update on what’s happening in Ultimate Peace and Unifly, while also sharing the considerable thoughts and feelings driving our actions. 

A version of this extensive update has been sent to UP coaches, staff, and volunteers, past and present. As longtime supporters of our work, we also wanted to provide you with a fuller picture, so what follows is a fairly lengthy message. 

As we all know, the last five months have been extremely painful, heartbreaking, and destructive. The state of the Middle East right now is without question one of shared trauma and hopelessness. We are witnessing another horrific chapter in the regional cycle of violence that seems to only get worse with each crisis. 

Our Middle East UP/Unifly family has been deeply and directly affected. Middle East Board members, staff and other engaged volunteers are reaching out to support fellow Israelis and Palestinians who are living through this trauma. Many of us outside of the region are making contact with the wonderful people we have known and loved for years who are now profoundly affected by the war. Hearing their painful stories, we listen and stay in as close contact as possible. This proves challenging with ongoing escalations and ever-heightening emotions, but it is meaningful beyond description. 

There may be nothing we can do to change any of the conditions in the region, but as always, we believe the connections we continue to nurture are powerful in and of themselves. Learning about and gaining a better understand of the regional situation from our UP family members is invaluable – their lived experiences convey much more depth and complexity than we ever hear from the news or internet posts. 

15 years ago, we decided to build a cross-cultural community, one that would include young people and adults from segregated disconnected communities in the Middle East. We believed that if we could create a shared culture in which all people felt safe, accepted, and loved, where each person would feel a sense of true belonging and yes, peace, that the human beings who went through our programs could find an equitable way to live on the land together where fear and violence reigned. 

We had many ups and downs, but no one can say that for moments, sometimes many strung together, we did not see what a peaceful harmonious community could look and feel like in the region. Today, what we all had then seems like a dream, a fantasy. But despite the war that makes us feel so angry, heartbroken, cynical, and afraid, that pulls us apart and polarizes us and the rest of the world, we know in our hearts that we don’t have to be divided. Those currently in power may not have a clue about how to create peace between people, but we’ve seen that people themselves do know how, which is why we have not given up. It’s why we are redoubling our efforts to advance our work and mission in the Middle East and beyond. Much more about what we are doing below.

As you know, we have always been a community made up of people with widely divergent political views, by design. Over the years as violent regional events have erupted, people inside and outside of our community have requested, even demanded that we take a stand, pick one side over the other. These strong appeals have always come from every political position, reinforcing our commitment to our mission: to build bridges of friendship, understanding and leadership through the sport of UltimateThis war is no exception. 

In addition to the mission, we have always found it useful to ground ourselves in our 5 values during difficult times. Today, we amplify non-violence. Some say it’s naive, but we have learned again and again that nonviolence is a foundational condition for human beings to build trust and thrive.

We will always support diplomacy and reconciliation. We want the violence to stop and for discussions to commence. There is no hope or possibility as long as the destruction of lives and humanitarian crises continue. The only way through this deadlock is to be together, to connect, to see one another’s humanity, to feel hope. It looks today like there is slight movement in this direction  –  peace cannot come soon enough.

What are we Doing? – Our way of dealing with all of this is through our work. We have stayed off of social media because of the way these platforms are being used to foster misunderstanding, increase division, and inhibit civil discourse – this is simply antithetical to our mission. Instead we have quietly but assertively been taking action in the following ways: 

• Providing Programs – This is what we exist to do. Unifly is, with inspiring resilience, continuing to provide programs in Muslim and Jewish communities. We are serving our old communities, starting new communities, and working with displaced communities. We are committed to providing continued access to sport for young people whose lives are forever altered by this conflict.  And, we are convinced the best thing we can do is to keep bringing youth together in uplifting positive experiences, to build a shared community, to create a different vision for the future. As long as it’s safe, we will keep the flame flickering, because it matters. 

Two weeks ago, cross-cultural games were organized for a meet-up in Tamra. Unifly staff was worried that the Jewish communities would not show up. In the best of times it can be a concern, but with the crisis in Gaza worsening and a Northern war looming, Jewish families holding onto their kids would not be a surprise. At the appointed time, however, the bus from Nahalal showed up, full of excited ultimate players. Parents driving their kids in cars from Zichron Yaakov followed behind them. Their Arab hosts were elated and welcomed them with open arms.

The coaches decided that teams from the different towns should play against each other instead of in a HAT format. According to Karym this was their instinct and they agreed to the competition. And guess what? The kids played hard and tough, with amazing energy and spirit that made every person watching smile and cheer. At the end of the game they blended together.

A coach named Ahmed from Tamra who taught PE at the local high school has supported our program since 2010. He came by the fields, saw what was happening, and got so excited he went out and bought pizza for everyone, which the youth enjoyed under the lights in the most sublime and unexpected evening anyone had experienced in many months.

As Karym, UNIFLY’s steadfast leader, said after watching kids play:

“You know, the main thing that brings me joy right now is going to a practice and watching

those kids play and smile and get so lost in the moment – they can finally experience joy.”

• Facilitating Online Interactive Panels –  We are organizing people in our community, youth and adults alike, to share their lived experiences, not only with each other but with audiences in the US who otherwise can only gather their knowledge from the media. US-based organizations have reached out to ask for help as they deal with the tremendous internal tensions around the Middle East war. We have decided to assist by providing interactive panels via Zoom that enable people with multiple, often conflicting perspectives to see more of the contextualized complexity than is not at all obvious from afar or via news and social media. This is proving to be pivotal in helping attendees gain an appreciation for nuance that would be impossible without this exposure.

In order to protect a safe space among our participants, we aren’t able to share recordings or post these discussions on social media.  We are seeing tremendous value of these in-person discussions as places to have civil discourse, juxtaposed with the toxic polarization so dominant online and in our daily lives.

One Principal’s comment after a panel: 

The students were so moved at the panel to hear how you all talked to and with each other, particularly when there was disagreement. It led to an interesting and important conversation about our own community and how students desperately need the skills and language to have difficult conversations.”

• International US-based camp: We are planning our second US camp, this time with increased  international participation. We’ll host youth from around the US again, but this time we’ll have campers, CITs, and coaching cohorts from the Middle East and India! We’ve partnered with India Ultimate, who reached out to us last year for help training young female coaches in a gender equity grant funded by the US Embassy.  We plan to have coaches from Colombia and Mexico again, and maybe campers too. Last summer, our US camp had a beautiful communal energy like our ME one, largely influenced, in our opinion, by the Middle East contingent of grads and coaches who came and brought serious fun UP energy. And of course our indomitable spirit champion, Shimoni.

As you can see, we are still very hard at work, so despite the inherent challenges, we are not giving up; we are adapting, and doing our best to continue and even scale the work. There are a few things we suggest you might consider doing, as they have been very helpful to us over these last months.

1. Reach out and Listen – For years our approach has been to focus on building relationships, connecting 1-1 with others. Living the values of the organization, especially when we find ourselves more divided, is especially tough. Practicing mutual respect when disagreeing is particularly challenging, but now is the perfect time to connect in that way. Listening to friends and family with points of view different from our own can be painful but also restorative and healing if done with care. The act of reaching out and listening provides a powerful reminder of just how much we need each other.

2. Support – We have decided after all this time that we will make a post on social media, to share much of what has been shared here today. We understand that there may be all kinds of responses, and we hope you will support our intentions to inform and not to enflame. This should be going out in the next few days.

3. Assume best intent – A gentle reminder to consider, especially during these times of high emotion, that most people are truly doing their best. That it’s well worth learning more about why someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing before telling them they are wrong, labeling them, or writing them off. Assume best intent – why not?

Graduate in Action: In that spirit of optimism, and in closing, we share a short story, about a young 21-year-old man named Ahmed, from one of our original communities, Tamra. Ahmed grew up in UP, as he likes to say, starting off as a camper and participant in the year-round program in his early teens. He became an LIT, stood out as exemplary, then lost his momentum, as did so many others when the program closed due to Covid-19. Yet when the program came back to life, he showed up, eager to volunteer, coach, start communities, whatever. All this as a busy engineering student at the Technion.

When we started recruiting coaches from the Middle East for the US camp last year, Ahmed eagerly raised his hand. Moving his whole life around so he could come to New Jersey and coach, Ahmed brought the love and spirit of community that he’d felt as a young person in the program. He gave back asking for nothing in return. And the campers responded, finding his energy and leadership irresistible. He returned to the Middle East fired up.

Ahmed called recently to ask if we could buy him some discs and a training device for jumping. Turns out he had started an adult team in Tamra with old UP grads and former campers. They were practicing and he wanted to get them some tools. Karym went out to a practice and said it was absolutely magical to reunite with around 40 adults who he had helped raise through the program over the years. Now young men and women, there they were throwing discs under the lights, running drills they learned when they were kids in the program, scrimmaging and playing their hearts out. For a few hours they forgot, and remembered.

Ahmed texted me about his new team: “This will bring back the spirit of ultimate into our hearts.”

Well, that’s a lot. If you have read this far, I thank you. 

From all of us at Team UP, may the suffering end, may the lives of people in harm’s way be spared, may there be more hope for a better time. Please keep in touch and feel free to share your thoughts and feelings.

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Pictures below from Tamra games in early March