Five Palestinian athletes overcame many difficulties to represent their country at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics recently. Their struggle to fulfil their dreams, and those of their people, makes them heroes to the Palestinians at home and abroad. In this and later articles, I hope to introduce these heroes to a wider audience.
First up is track and field sprinter Hanna Barakat, the Palestinian record holder for the 100m, 200m and 400m. The Palestinian American was born and raised in Los Angeles, where her family settled after leaving their homeland. Her father Mohammed is a former Olympian and her dream is to win the Olympic gold for Palestine, having opted to represent her ancestral rather than her current home on the international stage.
Hanna played football in her early years, but switched to athletics when she was 15 years old. "I have always loved running," she told me. "In 2010, my elementary school asked every student where they see themselves being in 10 years. My confident response was that I would be in the Olympics for track and field. I was right."
Throughout her athletics career, she has been supported by a team of individuals, primarily her coach, Cedric Hill. "He has stood by me through thick and thin, and my teammates at Brown University always push me." What about her family and friends? "My family has taught me to dream big and my friends catch me when I fall. Moreover, the Palestinian Athletics Federation (PAF) has believed in me."
As a Palestinian living in the diaspora — having been born outside of Palestine — why did she decide to represent Palestine in international competition? This was, she said, her lifelong dream. "I knew that if the opportunity presented itself there would be no question. Growing up in the diaspora, being Palestinian constitutes a variety of realities. For me, I am seeking representation. I deeply respect the Palestinian Olympic runners who have preceded me. Athletics is a powerful way of representation and doing so on the global stage is a dream come true."
READ: The Israeli occupation hindered this Palestinian Olympian's progress, not her determination
Having joined Team Palestine officially a year ago, due to the pandemic Hanna took a gap year from Brown University and trained full-time in southern California. She saw it as an opportunity to pursue her athletics dream, so reached out to the PAF via Instagram.
"The team was excited to learn about my athletic endeavours. In June this year, they invited me to compete in the Arab Athletics Championships in Tunisia, where I had the honour of representing Palestine among 22 other Arab countries."
She did more than represent Palestine; she set new national records for the 100m, 200m and 400m. After that, the PAF officials told her that the Palestinian Olympic Committee had evaluated her performance and selected her to represent Palestine in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. "The games were just 31 days away, so I am grateful to my coach for joining me on this Olympic adventure."
For many Palestinians in the diaspora, Palestine is forbidden territory. They are unable to go home. Like so many others in the same situation, Hanna learned about her ancestral homeland from her family. "Many of the family stories and experiences were heartbreaking," she explained. "I also read about Palestine and was fortunate to go there for a summer visit four years ago."
Being recognised as Palestinian on the world's largest sporting stage and wearing the flag on her running kit was an "indescribable" feeling. "The thousands of messages I received from Palestinians and non-Palestinians around the world are a testament to the pride we all feel to be accepted and supported by the global community."
She is determined that she wants the world to know that she might have been born in the US but she is a "proud Palestinian" from Anabta, Palestine. "Off the track, I am committed to uplifting Palestinian voices and the fight for freedom. I hope to be an inspiration to young Palestinian girls around the world; to let them know that there is a place for them to get involved in sports on the international stage."
Hanna grew up hearing about her father's experience as a member of the 1984 US Olympic hockey team. Nevertheless, this didn't prepare her for the experience of taking part in the Olympics herself. "Of course, Covid-19 affected the reality of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was drastically different, but still a stimulating environment: new faces, languages and a parade of flags everywhere you looked."
All of the athletes stayed in the Olympic Village because of the pandemic. "This meant that we could see the A-list athletes walking about, which was exciting. It was special to walk around with the name of Palestine on my shirt. The team and I were often approached by friendly faces from South America to Africa to Europe and Asia. Team Palestine was popular in the Village."
READ: This Gaza leisure centre is made of rubbish
The most rewarding part of the experience, she pointed out, was being with the other four Palestinian athletes and realising how special it was to be together. "We embodied different aspects of the Palestinian reality, and it was beautiful to come together in ways that the occupation does not allow." Palestine, Hanna was keen to remind everyone, has been occupied for more than 70 years. "We are seeking our freedom to be an independent state."
Her teammates were Mohamed, a weightlifter from Gaza; Wesam, a judoka from Jerusalem; Dania, a swimmer from Bethlehem; and Yazan, a swimmer from Canada. "Together we were a reflection of the disjointed yet united reality of Palestinians around the world. It was extraordinary to be brought together as one cohesive group with the singular purpose of representing Palestine, a country fighting for its survival."
It is this, she insists, which is the best part about competing. "Many people were surprised to see a sprinter from Palestine in the 100m and I loved showing them that it is possible. I also loved competing against runners from all over the world. It was an honour to run alongside sprinters representing nations that I have not previously competed against, such as Antigua, Indonesia, Malawi and Malta."
Her advice for Palestinian athletes looking to compete in the Olympics is to understand that there is no "one" journey or "right" way to get to there. She did, however, suggest that the development of a support structure is important. "Coaches, family members, teammates, training partners will all help to keep you on the right path, but at the end of the day it is up to the individual and his or her determination."
What does the future hold for Hanna Barakat? Aside from hoping to spend time training in Palestine with the PAF team and encouraging girls to get involved, she sees herself competing in more international arenas. "It would be good to set new national records within the next five years," she concluded. "Beyond that, who knows? When I can no longer compete at the highest levels, I see myself campaigning for justice for the Palestinians and other marginalised communities across the globe."
She is a determined and committed young Palestinian woman. I am convinced that she will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.