Cycling4Gaza began as a floating idea discussed by a group of friends over coffee in a small London cafe, but has now grown into an international grassroots effort due to the dedication of its founders and volunteers.
In an exclusive interview with MEMO, Cycling4Gaza founders, Tamara Ben-Halim and Zara Hannoun, explain how the initiative started, its aims, and this year's plans.
"What began as a casual conversation concerning the fact that media attention on Palestinians in Gaza had abruptly stopped as soon as the last bombs were dropped" soon turned into an idea that would bring attention back to the "disastrous conditions that people in Gaza had been left in, as well as thinking of innovative ways to garner support for people there that didn't involve simply writing a cheque," Ben-Halim explains.
Initially the idea was for a small group of friends to join an existing organised charity bike ride, but as Ben-Halim explains: "when we spoke to MAP UK they encouraged us to think bigger. They told us that if we could recruit 20 cyclists then we could have our own bike ride dedicated to MAP, supporting their emergency healthcare projects in Gaza."
Instantly Ben-Halim and her friends began to build their own project, create a website, marketing material, a logo, and started spreading the word, recruiting people to take part in the cycling challenge. This was in March 2009.
"We had less than four months to pull everything off. By April we began recruiting in earnest, through word of mouth and flyering around London as well as through MAP's network. Somehow, by mid-June, just two weeks before the ride, we had 27 people signed up." Ben-Halim says.
The challenge was a real success; raising more than £90,000 for MAP's emergency maternal and neonatal healthcare projects, and receiving widespread media attention.
Each year the team evaluate which areas in Gaza need the most support with regards to children's healthcare and education; projects that may be underfunded or overlooked. They then carry out extensive research about the on-going projects executed by existing organisations, reach out to them to develop in depth reports about their work and subsequent impact.
Hannoun explains that "we select a partner based on the project, their transparency, their impact, flexibility and international recognition." Adding that they would love to support more local organisations but "due to our limited resources it would be difficult for us to verify all their activities, spending etc… as it is vital for us that the money we raise goes directly to the project we are supporting, we feel it is important to work with organisations that have been internationally registered and evaluated."
Over the years, Cycling4Gaza has developed a network within the community and has been approached by various organisations about its work and partnership opportunities.
This year, PACES was chosen. A charity that provides Palestinian children an escape from being idle on the streets, or in their homes, Hannoun explains that PACES is an ideal choice because "they encourage active citizenship and provide young people with the opportunity to develop values such as respect for the opponent, adherence to rules, teamwork and fair play."
PACES combines sport with non-sport factors to enhance Cycling4Gaza programmes and "we have partnerships with local and international NGOs to provide the children with workshops and exposure beyond sports that give them additional development opportunities." PACES uses similar activities as Cycling4Gaza to engage, motivate and inspire.
PACES also creates employment opportunities in Palestine, imperative for the sustainability and growth of any country. Its 2016 programme aims to provide employment for 600 coaches. This, in both Hannoun and Ben-Halim's opinions, is an added incentive for what they believe is a "great partnership".
PACES usually enrols a few teams from Palestine every year in the international football tournament, the Norway Cup (www.norwaycup.no), with four teams participating in the tournament this year. Cycling4Gaza has made the cycle event coincide with the tournament to provide support for the children. Cyclist with be on the course from 4-8 August while the tournament begins on 30 July and the Cycling4Gaza team aim to be there on 2 August to support the teams before the cycle.
Hannoun hopes that 45-50 cyclists will take part this year, but in the current political climate entering Norway might not be an easy task but she is optimistic, we "have cycled in countries with visa requirements before and the majority of the time no issues are encountered. We provide all the documentation and support needed for individuals to apply without trouble and our partner for that year also provides support if needed, by writing letters of recommendation etc…"
When the team launched their challenge of Cycling4Gaza in the US there were some concerns, given the political climate there when it comes to Israel/Palestine, "we were certain that we would receive some negative press or encounter hostility on our ride." Contrary to the team's assumptions, "we found nothing but genuine support on the road for us. I've thought about this a lot, and I think that we, people in general, make great mistakes in conflating the people with the government," Ben-Halim says.
She says that the people they encountered were curious and wanted to know more, and once they did, were very supportive of the team. She also thinks that when one sees a group of people cycling peacefully together, there is nothing controversial or potentially threatening, even if many people have negative connotations when it comes to Gaza.
They saw a "group of 35 people on their bikes, challenging themselves physically and mentally for something they believe in, supporting people who live in dire circumstances. It's difficult to be upset about that."
This year the team aims to raise £250,000 and cyclists will travel approximately 240 kilometres over the course of three days.
The funds raised through Cycling4Gaza will be used to support 700 children and their coaches in Gaza. More specifically, 70 per cent of the funds will be used to cover the direct running costs of the PACES' sports and civic social programmes in Gaza as follows:
1) Support 28 female and male coaches
2) Support field staff members and programmes communication
3) Provide uniforms and equipment for 700 children and their coaches; which are bought locally to support the local economy
4) Civic and social activities that include health, hygiene, environmental and educational awareness sessions and fun activities for children
5) Coaches capacity building workshops, public meetings for parents and other activities with sports centres and clubs
6) Support one team of boys/girls from PACES children in Gaza to participate in the 2016 Norway Cup
The remainder of the funds will contribute to the PACES sports programme in the occupied West Bank and the refugee camps in Lebanon.
In Ben-Halim's view, Cycling4Gaza has energised and motivated many people around the world. People often inform the team that Cycling4Gaza is one of the best things they've done, "some tell us that it has motivated them further to support the Palestinian cause."
She vividly remembers what she describes as "one of the nicest things I've heard", when one cyclist admitted to the team that taking part in the ride brought him closer to Palestine. He is, like many Palestinians, a Palestinian in the diaspora who has never been able to go back and who therefore feels far removed from his homeland. "To hear that his experience with C4G brought him closer to his home was powerful."
She hopes that in the future the team will be able to continue on the path "we've been going on, to organise yearly efforts that mobilise dozens of people around the world to proactively support disadvantaged Palestinian communities." She also hopes to reach Gaza one day, to "take our efforts to Palestine, at a time when it looks more likely that we can actually enter Gaza."
Ben-Halim stressed that the idea of Cycling4Gaza becoming an official "institution" as opposed to a small grassroots effort is an ongoing internal conversation – "on the one hand, expanding means reaching more people and potentially making more of a difference. On the other hand, staying small and agile means we maintain our flexibility and independence, all the while ensuring that we work to the highest standard and keep the quality of our efforts strong." Only time will tell what direction Cycling4Gaza will take.
As for Ben-Halim, every year that she takes part in the cycling challenge she is inspired, energised and "my faith in the power of people to do good becomes reinforced."
Cycling4Gaza provides hope for Ben-Halim just as it gives hope to many benefitting from its funds.