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Race Against Time (and For Palestinians)

When the story began there was no clear ending. Two had to be written, one tragic and one triumphant, while waiting to see which one applied by the end of the tale.

The Galilee Foundation, a British registered Charity, raises funds for higher education scholarships which are awarded to talented but financially disadvantaged Palestinian citizens of Israel, and as the economic woes of the occupied Palestinian territories increase, for Palestinian students in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as well.

Every year we participate in the Royal Parks Half Marathon as part of our fund raising initiative. Our runners are friends and supporters of the charity. Some are experienced athletes, others are beginners, but all are united in their willingness to train for and run a gruelling 13.1 miles around Hyde Park, Green Park and St James Park. While onlookers and cheer leaders can enjoy some of London’s most iconic landmarks on the route, thousands of runners endure the risks of dehydration, pain and exhaustion to pass the finish line and justify the generosity of their sponsors. Add the unpredictability of British October weather to this to understand the enormity of the challenge and the dedication of the runners.

This year, among our thirteen participants, eleven of whom were British, were two young men who only live 48 miles apart but who had never met. Ameer lives in Israel and is one of the Galilee Foundation’s own scholarship students. Abd lives in the West Bank. Both are experienced runners. In any other location their geographical proximity and common sporting interest would probably have resulted in them meeting before now, perhaps to run in competing teams, perhaps to be selected to run together in a national squad, but in the geopolitical circumstances in which Ameer and Abd find themselves, Palestinians in Israel and their compatriots in the occupied Palestinian territories seldom meet. Often this restriction means they do not believe they have anything in common. You just need to imagine London and Reading separated by borders, fences, checkpoints and a bewildering system of permits to understand the difficulty and the absurdity of this situation.

Ameer and Abd never knew of each other’s existence until both announced their interest to run for the Galilee Foundation. They had to fly thousands of miles to London to meet and run together despite living less than an hour’s journey apart as the crow flies. For Ameer, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel with an Israeli passport the logistics were fairly straightforward. For Abd, they were anything but.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are among the poorest 20% of the population. Ameer is 21 years old and lives in Tel Aviv. He is studying Economics and Business Management at Tel Aviv University.. The Galilee Foundation pays Ameer’s university fees, but because the costs of living are high he must work hard at two jobs while he studies as his family do not have the resources to help him. He is a keen runner and is in a running group called “Right to Movement”, a non-profit social start-up that believes everyone should have the right to freedom of movement, something Palestinians are not permitted to enjoy.

Abd is 19 years old and lives in Bethlehem in the West Bank. He is studying Physical Education at Al Quds University in the Abu Dis Campus. He started running from the age of 10 and has won several tournaments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His economic circumstances are equally difficult, but, because of the israeli military occupation, he had the added burden of negotiating the complexities of obtaining a visa to visit the UK.

Because Ameer has an Israeli passport he does not need a visa and was easily able to come into London through Ben Gurion airport. Abd had to wait about 3 weeks and the Galilee Foundation had to write an invitation letter for Abd to have any chance to receive a visa. He cannot even fly from Palestine, is unlikely to get a permit to enter Israel to fly from there, so must plan to drive to Jordan, then come to London from Amman)

Barely a week ago before the race we found out that Abd’s visa application was rejected out of hand due to some missing documents giving proof he had enough funds for the journey..

After a lot of scrambling to get the correct documents, and a little string pulling, the visa refusal decision was reversed. Abd had a visa waiting for him in Amman by Wednesday. All he had to do was go and fetch it.

Of course, it can never be that easy for a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories. To be a Palestinian is a daily challenge. The bridge to Amman was closed on Wednesday, because it was Yom Kippur in Israel so Abd had to wait until Thursday to cross the bridge at 9am to collect his visa. This journey takes about 3 to 4 hours. He then needed to rush to the embassy before it closed at 3pm. Then hopefully he would finally have his visa and be on a flight to London on Friday morning!

It was on Thursday – LITERALLY A RACE AGAINST TIME… before his actual race on Sunday!!

Our hearts were in our mouths in London. We had the anxiety of those who had done all they could yet must now bear with uncertainty.

We feared Friday morning would come and go. Thursday’s deadlines would be missed by a combination of delays and the unforgiving and inexorable march of time. The uncaring indifference and manufactured hurdles of the occupation would win. We would, of course, be very glad to have Ameer with us, safe and sound among caring and supportive new friends, meeting the other runners in a convivial setting, but he would have to run on Sunday without his Palestinian compatriot, Abd. Forty eight miles then might as well be worlds away. The disappointment would be palpable.

But the Fates were more benevolent that day. Not for nothing had Abd won Gold in the Palestinian marathon the week before. He pulled out all the stops, met the deadlines and still had time to send us a selfie as proof of his victory.

By the time Friday evening came, Abd was in London with Ameer, enjoying the luxury of chatting on a sofa with him, bonding over commonalities, sharing notes, while resting from the long journey and meeting the other runners in the most congenial of surroundings provided by Palestinian hospitality. The sense of relief and joy at his triumph over unforgiving bureaucracy and a punitive occupation was palpable. It was a time for celebration.

Ameer and Abd used Saturday to enjoy a bus tour of London together in the autumn rain. Their smiling faces were proof weather is of little consequence when time to experience a taste of this historic city is so short and there is the opportunity to cement a new and rewarding friendship. Being young this was all the rest they needed to recover from Thursday’s adrenaline rush and long journeys before summoning the stamina needed to run the half marathon on Sunday.

October can be beautiful in London, with the urban forest displaying all the richness of autumnal colour, but Sunday’s weather was in greyscale; increasingly so as the morning wore on. The rain and mud were reminiscent of an outdoor rock festival, with the same determination from all participants to enjoy the event regardless of what the sky threw at them or how much London clay covered their footwear. We counted out our thirteen runners and counted them back in. Each of them had won a personal victory of some sort and the exhaustion and aches, the cries of “I can’t feel my legs” and “I hurt” were tempered with the smiles of success and relief. Two of the women were mothers in the last year and it was their first major attempt to regain fitness. Three women had never run before. The other six, although experienced, are not professional runners. We were proud of them all.

Ameer and Abd seemed to wear cheerful grins throughout, and although both finished in pain they were undaunted. The sweetest triumph was Abd’s. He finished in 39th place out of 15,875 runners and came third in his age group.

They took their flights home on Monday, with stories to tell, while leaving the Galilee Foundation with the certainty that when we say: “All Palestinians need is opportunity”, we are being totally truthful. Our investment in their futures will pay dividends.

Dianne Woodward is the social media editor for the Galilee Foundation.

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