Gazan women shoot for hope with wheelchair basketball

Gazan women shoot for hope with wheelchair basketball

Khan Yunis (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - In front of a gym's empty bleachers, a group of veiled women in wheelchairs exchange passes, practicing to form a female Paralympic basketball team in the Gaza Strip.

Wessal Abu Alyan, a 40-year-old mother of four, said playing helped her "feel free and strong".

"I try to ignore the negative looks from people toward the disabled, but I know there's still a long way to go before we are completely integrated in society," she said.

As the women practiced, they were given advice and encouragement from Jess Markt, an American who began playing wheelchair basketball after a spinal cord injury when he was 19.

Markt has coached players in Afghanistan, India and Cambodia.

In Gaza at the invitation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), he is overseeing 115 players, both men and women, over the course of three weeks.

"They've made real progress," said Markt, who had also worked with the players last year.

The programme has particular relevance in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, which has seen three wars with Israel since 2008.

More than 75,000 Gazans out of a population of 1.9 million are physically or visually disabled, according to the ICRC.

Of those, a third were wounded by war.

Paralympic teams are being slowly created, and the ICRC has provided 70 wheelchairs to eight teams this year.

Suhair Zakkout, ICRC spokeswoman in Gaza, said the players could help "show that Gaza is not only war and violence".

They can "become ambassadors in international competitions."

Money shortages, however, have hampered their efforts, while cultural expectations of women have also been an obstacle in the Islamist-run Palestinian territory.

"There is the social pressure that sometimes says women shouldn't play sports," Markt said.

"I think there is a lot of pressure here, and it's difficult, but I think these women just like those in other countries can overcome that pressure and set an example for other girls to come and start to play."

One new team, Al-Farissat, has had to fight to find a place to play.

"Society is doing a better job of integrating the disabled, especially because nearly every household is touched by a disabled person," said Fadi Dib, a 32-year-old coach for the Red Crescent Paralympic team in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.

But Dib said "political decisions and laws to advocate their rights" were lacking.

Huda Abu Odeh, 36, remains a firm believer in the power of sport.

"We will realise our dream of entering international competitions," she said. "And we will win."