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Goal for peace: Arab, Israeli children build bonds in Brazil

Goal for Peace is a collaboration between the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and The Equalizer Program

Gary Meenaghan

Published: Updated:

Every morning, 13-year-old Ayman Gheit, an Arab boy from Jerusalem, wakes up, eats breakfast and brushes his teeth - “like every average boy,” he says. Only this week, Ayman was doing something far from average - not only was he playing football inside a 43,000-capacity stadium in São Paulo, he was also attending the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Ayman is one of 22 children from Jerusalem who have travelled to Brazil as part of an initiative called Goal for Peace, a collaboration between the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and The Equalizer Program, an Israel-based NGO that uses the beautiful game to educate disadvantaged children aged between nine and 14 and help create bonds regardless of faith.

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Gary

Earlier this week, the 11 Arab and 11 Jewish children played in mixed teams during a series of exhibition matches at Allianz Parque, home of Brazilian league leaders Palmeiras. Afterwards, the children accompanied the players as they entered the field for the home side’s match against Vitoria.

“Every day I need to play football and because I already knew Brazil is the home of Ronaldinho, Pelé and lots of other famous players, I was very excited to come on this trip” Yossei Teferi, the 10-year-old brother of Israeli marathon runner Maru Teferi, says in Hebrew. “For me, to come all the way from Israel and play on the same field that many great players have played [on] is an amazing experience.”

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Gary

After the match, the travelling delegation enjoyed a meal together and boarded a bus for Rio, host city of the ongoing Olympic Games. Here, out of sight of the spectators, occurred the best indication yet that The Equalizer Program is succeeding, that Jerusalem’s fractured society can one day coexist in peace.

“On the bus, I saw Arab and Jewish children [who] had never enjoyed a friendship before, playing together and trying to talk, even though they do not speak the same language,” says Gabriel Holzhacker, the Brazil-born deputy director of The Equalizer. “They were interacting as a direct result of the emotions they had experienced together during the football match.”

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Gary

Once in Rio, the delegation visited the CBF Headquarters, where Ayman and Yossei stayed close together, telling each other silly jokes and talking about football. “We both like Pelé,” Ayman says. Later, they and the rest of the group attended Olympic judo, where Sergiu Toma won the United Arab Emirates’ first medal in 12 years and Yarden Gerbi became Israel’s first medalist since 2008.

Leaving the Carioca Arena, the 22 children were filed into two lines with their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them. In celebratory mood, they sang together in English as they walked towards their bus.

“We have gotten to know each other, talking a little and having a good time,” says Ayman, in Arabic, of his blossoming friendship with Yossei. “Football has brought us together and helped show that sport can help build peace.”

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Gary

Which is precisely the objective of the Goal for Peace: to spread the values of respect, tolerance and coexistence while decreasing prejudice in younger generations. Liran Gerassi, executive director of The Equalizer, says events such as this week’s help children appreciate that even though their parents or friends might teach them to hate each other, everybody is the same.

“What we teach is that even though he is different to you; even though he is Arab or he is Jewish, he is a human being,” says Gerassi, who founded The Equalizer seven years ago while at university. “An Arab kid can meet a Jewish kid and shake hands with him. [Each] can see the other happy after he wins and crying after he loses. It's like, he may hate you, but he might also love you. This is sometimes different to what the children are being taught at home.”

The program, run four days a week, all year around, combines football with study sessions and exam preparations. If the children do not attend the two study sessions, they are not allowed to participate in the two football sessions. “Without exaggeration,” says Yossei, “it has changed my life.”

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