Creating new perspectives since 2009

Palestinian Paralympians: MEMO in conversation with Amos Trust

Bringing Palestinian talent onto the international arena means not only training and honing in on skills, but also navigating Israel's oppressive occupation and its repercussions on the team's mental health

August 9, 2023 at 4:00 pm

The situation in Palestine can seem hopeless and this leads to mental health issues, and it is for this reason that it is vital to maintain hope, says Amos Trust’s director. Join us as we speak to the organisation’s Chris Rose and Communications Manager Nick Welsh.

Amos Trust helps run community programmes to promote creative, non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — and work to relieve the stress and despair that the occupation causes within these communities. This includes helping disabled Palestinians to set up a Paralympian cycling team while navigating the limitations of the apparatus available as a result of Israel’s brutal siege, the mental health of team members and the limited access to the necessary medical equipment.

Chris has travelled extensively to Amos’ partner projects and led many trips and activities, such as home rebuilding, cycling and marathons trips in Palestine. He co-founded the Street Child World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and led ‘Just Walk’ from London to Jerusalem in 2017. Before working for Amos, he was CEO of Romsey Mill, a highly innovative youth project in Cambridge.

Nick leads on Amos’ large-scale projects, such as On Location and is heavily involved in the Palestine Music Expo. Before working for Amos, Nick ran a small design agency focusing on working with business owners and marketing teams, helping them to reposition their organisations through expert design, branding and creative communications.

“What struck me the most in Gaza was when I was only able to hire the worst bike imaginable to cycle around the athletics track together with Alaa, and I was dying just trying to keep up with him even though he’s got one leg,” said Chris Rose, Director of British human rights group, Amos Trust.

“And I’m a regular cyclist so it really stuck to me how much of a good cyclist Alaa is, despite having only one leg.”

It was a spectacle that left an indelible mark on Chris Rose’s mind: watching Alaa Al-Dali, a determined cyclist with only one leg, powering through the broken streets of Gaza on his bike.

Alaa had participated in the March of Return in 2018, equipped with his bicycle and dressed in cycling attire. While standing and observing the demonstration from a distance of around 300 metres from the separation fence, he was targeted by an Israeli sniper who fired a gunshot directly at his lower limbs, resulting in the loss of his right leg.

However, the tragedy did not diminish his aspirations and, instead, he began assembling a skilled Paracycling team in Gaza, known as the “Gaza Sunbirds”, to advance and nurture the cycling culture throughout Palestine.

It was also this unwavering spirit that served as a catalyst for Amos Trust to support the Palestinian athlete’s vision of sending his amputee cycling team to the 2024 Paralympics in France.

“The thing about these projects is that we like the big and slightly crazy projects. It suits the personality of our organisation. There are a lot of organisations that wouldn’t touch this project and go nowhere near it. But, for us, it’s a no-brainer and not just because we love cycling; that’s a bonus really, but it’s just so creative which is exactly the kind of thing we’re drawn to because it is so unusual and hard,” said Amos Trust’s Head of Communications, Nick Welsh.

Chris further noted that the reason this project deeply struck a chord within the members of the organisation was due to the importance of championing hope – the kind of tenacious hope that carries people through even the toughest of days – it becomes a sustaining force.

This is crucial, he emphasised, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, much like the current situation in Palestine and even more so in Gaza. When circumstances appear bleak, preserving hope takes on a paramount significance. Without it, lives are genuinely at stake, he added.

However, while most national teams are adhering to strict training schedules, dedicating their efforts to refining their skills and vying for the coveted gold medal, the “Gaza Sunbirds” have different priorities that set them apart, notably their aim to legitimately represent Palestine on the global stage.

In fact, the training regimen for Alaa and his fellow disabled athletes from Gaza has been anything but focused.

As the Olympics companion event approaches, Chris delves into the political complexities, a frustrating scarcity of training avenues, the struggle against equipment shortages, financial limitations and, perhaps most dishearteningly, a series of visa setbacks.

“I joined them for a cycle when I was in Gaza last year and I’m used to the usual bustle when preparing for a cycle, such as finding the water bottle etc., but over there it all takes a lot longer because they’re trying to clip a prosthetic limb into a pedal which doesn’t always work, or a ripped shoe is falling to pieces.”

“I felt permanently guilty about how I normally faff about before getting on a bike, when there are all these complications in Gaza which is just one microcosm.”

Chris noted the scarcity of bicycles due to equipment shortages, along with the considerable medical hardships that the athletes contend with, further impeding their training progress.

Additionally, they grapple with mental health challenges. Chris and Nick were cautioned that any endeavour in Gaza must acknowledge the pervasive trauma haunting every individual in Gaza, resulting in daily internal challenges that make even the simple act of training an exceedingly arduous task.

As a result of Israel’s stifling 17-year illegal siege on Gaza, amounting to a psychological stranglehold, approximately 80 per cent of Palestinians in the Strip depend on international aid.

The resulting economic deprivation has caused widespread unemployment and poverty – well-recognised risk factors for mental illness – and left health services underfunded, underdeveloped and unable to meet the demand.

Each war on Gaza decimates them further. The latest Israeli offensive in May, which lasted five days, killed at least 33 Palestinians in air and artillery strikes, including children. And around 3,000 housing units were damaged.

Chris elaborated that, after the UK government officially designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation, there were various implications that significantly complicated matters for any organisation operating in Gaza and being based in the UK. The heightened restrictions have imposed considerable challenges to ensure activities do not inadvertently support terrorism are of utmost importance.

Engaging in any form of funding that could be linked to terrorism is a serious legal violation. Therefore, it becomes essential to provide clear and irrefutable evidence that Amos Trust’s projects are entirely devoid of such intent.

Nonetheless, according to Chris, the biggest barrier obstructing the “Gaza Sunbirds” team’s participation in the 2024 Paralympics in France is primarily rooted in Palestinian affairs, in addition to a Palestinian Paralympics team not being registered yet with the UCI.

The web of politics within the Palestinian para-sports realm, he explained, coupled with the complexities prevalent in the Olympic domain, results in a multitude of divergent priorities and influences that affect the team’s prospects.

He said, “The international stuff and its politics are a massive challenge. For us, our dream is that they come to the Paralympics; that is really what we’re trying to go for. But we recognise the difficulties now and, if it proves impossible, the next dream is the UCI International events; it’s in Glasgow this year in August.”

“But our absolute goal is for the “Gaza Sunbirds” team to be here for the Paralympics; we’re trying our best to make that happen. It takes a lot of action.”

As Alaa and his team of Sunbirds pedal forward, Amos Trust serves as a prime example of how grassroots organisations can create meaningful change, even in the most challenging environments, through a commitment to fostering connections, amplifying marginalised voices and taking proactive initiatives.

MORE >>> MEMO in Conversation With