The Promise of Palestine

How youth programs help build minds, bodies and spirits

by Diane Handal

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“I represent Palestine and I feel that I have to represent all girls in Palestine. But I feel equal with boys; we play together, we cooperate with each other,” says Ranea Jaylata, who has played girls’ soccer in Jericho for eight years at the Baladna Club.

At 18 years of age and a senior in high school, Ranea is tall and lean — and blessed with a maturity that belies her youth.

“If I lose, it is nothing,” she says. “The most important thing is I played and competed and participated. I am strong. I have the spirit of competition and teamwork.”

Teamwork is essential for the Baladna Club, where the soccer team is a mix of girls from government schools, the Franciscan-run Terra Sancta School, and schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees. Of the 20 seniors in Ranea’s high school class, one girl is Christian and the rest, Muslim. “We are all together. There are no differences,” says Ranea. “We are one big family.”

Ranea’s dark brown hair is streaked with blond highlights and pulled tightly back in a ponytail, enhancing her high cheekbones. Her tanned skin contrasts starkly with her bright red T-shirt, sprinkled with Arabic writing.

She is one of eight children: six girls and two boys. Ranea’s father is a driver and her mother is a kindergarten assistant. The family lives in a two-story, stone-gated house in Jericho.

Through the Baladna Club, Ranea is developing not only a sense of teamwork, but also a sense of her self. And that is exactly the point.

Yusra Swaity, president of the Baladna Club, wants the girls “to reach the point of believing in themselves — to teach these girls to live their lives, build their character, be a part of a team and become leaders.”

Mrs. Swaity says she strives to make sure the girls respect each other as equals whether they come from refugee camps or the city. “No one is better than the other,” she points out. And Ranea epitomizes Mrs. Swaity’s mission.

“I believe in myself. I believe that I did something,” the teenager says, the rhinestones in her tiny, blue-flowered earrings sparkling in the sun.

The Baladna Club is one of 20 youth centers supported by CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Founded in 1999, the club has 120 members — Christians and Muslims, boys and girls from both public and private schools.

Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, believes support for such programs as Baladna is an innovative effort to make a difference in the lives of Palestinian youths. These programs provide formative opportunities to learn, grow, work together and play together. Life under military occupation can be frustrating and dispiriting for young people; these clubs try to raise spirits, offer a sense of community and purpose, and provide stability and hope. CNEWA also set up the initial training to teach 20 nongovernmental organizations how to write proposals, plan strategically, find resources and, most importantly, think realistically.

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