"It was an amazing trip; a dream come true. I have learned so much and Irish people were so friendly with us," told Muhannad Abu Ouda the Palestine Monitor.
Muhannad is one of the 14 children from the Gaza Strip who have just returned from a 10-day visit to Ireland to play football. Aged 10 to 14 years old, the young team of Al Helal football club toured seven cities and won all games against local teams.
The kids also met with the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, in Galway where they played at halftime of the Galway United vs Dundalk match in front of thousands of spectators on Friday, August 5.
The project "Gaza kids to Ireland", initiated by Gaza Action Ireland (GAI), required two long years of work to gather the funds and prepare logistics.
GAI was formed by Irish activists who were involved in the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign that was launched to maximise Irish participation in the Freedom Flotilla 2. The "Gaza Kids to Ireland" project was launched in 2014 by former Irish football manager Brian Kerr and former rugby international Trevor Hogan after a visit to Gaza.
"We had huge difficulties to get the travel permits from the Israeli authorities," explained Zoe Lawlor, GAI Coordinator. "The group was initially to be here on July 13, but their permits weren't granted so we had to reschedule our entire program. Then we spent a lot of time trying various diplomatic routes and, eventually they were granted except for one player, Karam Zedan, who had been injured during the Israeli attack in 2009," she added.
In addition, five accompanying adults, one of them a female child psychologist - and only woman on-board - were not allowed to travel, with no justification provided. There were only two adults to supervise the long and fastidious trip from and back to Gaza.
It was the very first time the teens could go out of the besieged strip and experience a different culture. "We will never forget the kind, generous and warm reception of the Irish people; even people that we randomly met in the streets insisted to offer us meals or ice creams," said Ayed Abu Ramadan, chairman of the Al Helal club.
Children in Gaza above 9 years old have experienced three wars in their short lifetime. Thousands suffer from post traumatic stress disorders. Sports and arts function as an escape and provide relief in a reality surrounded by destruction.
The children's club’s facilities in As Sudaniyah, west of Jabaliyah refugee camp in northern Gaza, was damaged by Israeli bombings during the attacks in 2012 and 2014. Gaza’s main football stadium, a few kilometers away, was deliberately targeted by other missile strikes in 2014.
Established in 1993, Al Helal club is one of the first clubs to offer football training, and one of the Gaza clubs that play in the excellent league. Furthermore, the club has been working on developing games for girls in the conservative strip, with the support of GAI.
“Our group of Palestinian children have a new story to tell, one of freedom, friendship, play and solidarity in Ireland. And we really hope to go on with new projects in partnership with Al Helal club," concluded Lawlor.