By Erica Barnell, Israel Way Tel Aviv Internship Experience
The bus came to a halt in an open parking lot outside Herzliya. From the window I could see a banner that read “The Peres Center for Peace - Mini World Cup.” I gathered with seven other volunteers from my Masa Israel program, Israel Way Tel Aviv Internship Experience, and we were briefed on our job descriptions for the day. I was given a neon green shirt that read STAFF, a folder with a French flag and a roster listing my team of ten kids - five from the West Bank and five from Ashkelon. The facilitators explained that this event was a coexistence exercise for children from different backgrounds and our job was to integrate the kids as best as we could and just have a good time.
I grabbed my team’s flag and headed toward our designated field to meet the boys prior to our first game. Despite the fact that they were nearly two feet shorter than me, and couldn’t have been more than than eleven years old, I found myself intimidated and nervous to test my newly acquired Hebrew skills as their coach. I quickly noticed that they gravitated towards their classmates, creating an uneasy segregation between Arabs and Israelis, and I wondered how my supervisors expected me to “discourage this behavior.” Smiling, I pointed to eight of the ten boys and drew Xs on my coaching board to dictate their positions, and in my best Hebrew, I told the two remaining boys to wait next to me. They argued and attempted to rearrange the order by placing their friends in close proximity, but my height advantage gave me sufficient authority to squash their disgruntled bickering.
The referees explained the rules and placed the ball in-between the two teams. As soon as he blew the whistle, I saw the most miraculous change on the pitch. The once-divided groups of four Israeli boys and four boys from the West Bank became a team of eight. Their common goal to defeat the opposing team and advance to the next round of the tournament gave them the activation energy required to overcome the segregation gap. Each pass was calculated based on positioning the team into a better scoring location, regardless of if the receiver had a familiar face or not. Towards the end of the game, one of our strikers took a corner kick across the center of the field, perfectly finding his teammate’s right foot to deflect the ball into the goal. Throwing my arms into the air, I ran a few feet onto the field to meet my attacking team with a congratulatory high-five; a gesture I found to be universal in all languages. Our team went on to advance to the semi-finals of this mini-world cup and we eventually lost to Greece in double over-time penalty kicks.
I looked at each of the kids on my team. They were sitting in a sweaty heap, guzzling water, too exhausted to care if they were next to a new friend or an old friend. I realized that only four hours prior they had been so disjointed, unable to connect on any social, economic or religious level, and after only five hours of soccer, they now shared a common bond that allowed them to relate to each other.
Even though our time in the tournament had ended, I felt accomplished. I had seen how a child’s mind is still malleable and capable of change and I secretly hoped that giving these kids six hours of my time might nudge their mindset toward tolerance and acceptance. I felt I had made a concrete difference in these kids’ lives. Perhaps there is no truth to my optimistic ponderings, and this event was just another day in the life of an eleven-year-old boy. However, regardless of my impact on the future generation of this world, I am comforted by the fact that for these kids, this was a day about soccer… and nothing else.
Erica Barnell of Saint Louis, MO, interned as a research technician at Tel Aviv University through Masa Israel. She is currently working on her MD/PhD at Washington University in Saint Louis