RC Buford PeacePlayers International

In July, RC Buford, president of sports franchises for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, traveled to the Middle East to participate in a series of clinics for PeacePlayers International (PPI). He was joined by Sam Presti, executive vice president of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chad Ford, ESPN columnist and professor of conflict resolution at BYU-Hawaii, and Brendan Tuohey, the founder and executive director of PeacePlayers International.

PeacePlayers International (PPI) was founded in 2001 by brothers Sean and Brendan Tuohey on the premise that “children who can player together can learn to live together.” The mission of the organization is to unite and educate children in divided countries through basketball. Since its creation PPI has reached more than 52,000 participants in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Cyprus and the Middle East.

PeacePlayers International Middle East (PPI-ME) is a locally led charity in Israel and the West Bank. Through a groundbreaking peace-building and leadership development curriculum, PPI-ME uses basketball to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together to teach them proven tactics for improving their communities. Since 2005, PPI-ME has engaged more than 5,500 Palestinian and Israeli children in year-round programming.

Buford serves on the Board of Directors for PPI and has made numerous trips overseas on behalf of the organization. Spurs.com is excited to present a blog of his experiences in the Middle East.


RC Buford participates in PeacePlayers International
RC Buford participates in PeacePlayers International.
(More Photos)
By: RC Buford
Day 1: The Leadership Development Program

We start our trip at the Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education in Jerusalem, which is the home court for PeacePlayers International – Middle East (PPI-ME). Our group joins Israeli basketball legend, Limor Mizrahi, and PPI-ME’s Head Coach, Vito Gilic. We spend the day with about 20 boys and girls from East Jerusalem (Palestinian) and West Jerusalem (Israeli) who are in PPI-ME's Leadership Development Program (LDP). These young adults, ages 15-to-17, are veteran PPI-ME participants who have been coming together with the “other side” for several years in the program, participating in joint basketball, educational, leadership and social activities. In Jerusalem, the lives of Palestinian and Israeli youth are completely separate. They live in separate neighborhoods, attend segregated schools and even speak different languages.

Through the LDP, we aim to cultivate the future basketball coaches and leaders of the communities in which they live and work. When I first visited the program in the summer of 2007, several of the children could barely dribble a basketball and had never interacted with their peers from the “other side.” Today, they are teaching the youngest PPI-ME participants basketball fundamentals and mentoring them through the organization’s peace-building curriculum. I consider it a great privilege to have seen so many of these participants become the ambassadors of peace in their communities that they are today.

Several members of this group have become talented basketball players. Our “star-studded” roster, that included Sam, Chad, Limor and me, was no match for the 15-to-17 year-old girls from the LDP group (yes, they beat us in a friendly, but serious, game). After our loss to the girls, we were better prepared for the LDP boys. The boys played hard and were almost as impressive as the girls. Thankfully, we won by a basket, managing to regain some of our dignity.

For me it was a very moving day, interacting with these young leaders. Over the years I’ve seen them blossom and grow in amazing ways. The females in the LDP group have become comfortable interacting with their peers from the “other side” while also learning how to be leaders, quietly changing the traditional role of females in the Arab society. What may sound like a small step, for example the fact that Palestinians and Israelis in the LDP group are now friends , is, in reality, nothing short of amazing. On the basketball side, several of the girls are being considered for the Israeli Junior National Team. It’s hard to imagine the stress and violence these young men and women have to deal with on a daily basis. They’ve grown up in tumultuous times, literally being raised with numerous wars, including the second Intifada, being fought around them. Yet the obstacles they face don’t seem to have a negative impact on their lives. This group is made up of outstanding young men and women, with great attitudes, who are educated, intelligent, well-rounded and eager to continue to influence change.

Day 2: "Anatomy of Peace"

We started the day learning the basics of the Anatomy of Peace, the conflict transformation model that PPI uses for its programming in partnership with the Arbinger Institute. The goal of using the model for PPI-ME is to create an "out of the box" (safe space) where people can see the humanity of others. The session was led by Chad Ford. Many know Chad from his role as an NBA expert at ESPN but he is also a college professor, a lead facilitator for the Arbinger Institute and longtime consultant to PPI. We were honored to be joined by representatives of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), one of PPI's most vital partners and biggest supporters. Participants included Brad Bessire (Director of Democracy and Governance Office, West Bank/Gaza) and Miada Younis (Acquisition & Assistance Specialist).

In the afternoon we were back on the court. We began with the Minis, the youngest participants in PPI-ME, ranging in age from six to eight. Many of the children, hailing from either East or West Jerusalem are the younger siblings of the LDP participants. With parents in attendance, Coach Gilic and the young leaders of the LDP led the Minis through a series of drills and stations designed to teach fundamentals and to promote cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli kids. It was clear that these kids were already comfortable with one another, after having participated in "twinnings" (joint educational and basketball activities) twice a month over the past year. It was great to see the parents on the basketball court as well, warming up with their children while interacting with parents from the "other side."

Next, we met with our teenage girls from Jaffa. Coach Gilic demonstrated activities from his brilliantly creative repertoire of "twinning" drills, specially designed to promote contact and cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli children.

The day came to a close with a final session with our young leaders, who demonstrated some of the drills from PPI-ME's curriculum. We witnessed how the Anatomy of Peace concepts can be applied to the basketball court and had a great Q & A with the Leadership Development Program participants.

Day 3: "Out of the Box Basketball"

Day 3 took us all the way up North to spend some time and shoot some hoops with one of PPI-ME's newest partners in the Haifa District. After a brief visit to the Bahai Gardens and a delicious lunch on the water of the ancient city of Akko (Acre), we headed up to Zichron Ya'akov, a quaint Jewish town 35 km from Haifa, to meet one of PPI-ME's new partners, the basketball club Hapoel Zichron Ya'akov.

We took advantage of the long bus ride to interact with parents and kids (I’m happy to report that I have lots of new Facebook friends). In Zichron, Arab and Jewish girls from two age divisions were divided into two ethnically integrated teams for a mini-tournament. Sam, Chad and I each coached a team. The highlight was undoubtedly the hotly contested game between my team and Chad's. My team held a sizeable lead until Chad called a time-out, during which he reminded his girls of PPI's Anatomy of Peace mantra: "Play an out of the box game!" After this encouraging reminder from their coach, our opponents played with great teamwork and passion, which allowed them to get back into the game. After two overtimes, with the game tied 40-40, we decided to call it a draw.

The gym in Zichron was like the others we saw on our trip: indoor, small, modest and, of course, without air conditioning (the climate is hot and humid, similar to San Antonio, but no one ever complains about the conditions in the gyms we visit).

Day 4: "On the other side of the checkpoint"

On Wednesday, we crossed the checkpoint - the separation wall - into the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Our first stop was the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, where we had the honor of meeting with an official representative of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. She shared her views and the official Palestinian position of the current political situation, which she described as being the "most difficult period we have ever experienced" in the history of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. We all had a chance to ask questions and discuss how PPI-ME plays, and can continue to play, a positive role in the region.

Next we headed to a refugee camp, where PPI-ME runs two basketball teams. This side of the wall is a totally different world. There is a clear socio-economic gap in Ramallah, we see modern villas on our way to the dilapidated refugee camp. The refugees are Palestinians who used to live in areas that today are within Israel’s borders. When they first arrived everyone thought the camps would be temporary. Today, many years later, it is clear that the camps are permanent as there are schools, shops and even hairdressers. Our Palestinian coordinator spent some time updating us about the progress of the girls while Coach Gilic warmed the girls up on the dilapidated basketball court. The court might be the worst that I have ever seen, with broken backboards, old unstable hoops and multiple large holes in the floor. We worked with a group of 12 girls, ages 10-to-12, all of whom have grown up in the camp. None of the girls had athletic shoes, they were modestly dressed and wore head-coverings in the grueling heat. Still they seemed thrilled to interact and learn from us. We all cooled down with ice cream, which was a treat for everyone.

This experience reminded me that even in cases where we cannot bring Palestinian and Israelis together, PPI-ME is giving children hope while equipping them with essential athletic and life skills for their future.

After a long day we had a traditional meal in a classic Palestinian restaurant. We started with dozens of salads and appetizers, including vegetables, hummus, tehini and fried cheese. This was followed by an enormous plate of mixed grilled meats and french fries. As is customary in the summer in Israel and Palestine we finished the meal with cold watermelon.

BACK TO SAN ANTONIO

On my way back to San Antonio there are so many great memories and exciting thoughts flowing through my head. I think of how fortunate I am to have shared such a special trip with my mom. Together we enjoyed some fantastic experiences. I'll always remember how Doha, a 15-year old Muslim girl who is part of the LDP group, connected with my 77-year-old mom, who is Christian and from Kansas. Their lives couldn't be more different yet they got along like old friends. The grace, comfort and composure Doha showed one afternoon, while leading my mom on a tour of the Old City, was truly amazing. I smile thinking of the marked difference in the attitudes of parents that we observed on this trip. In my first trips to the Middle East I’d see Palestinian kids interacting with Israeli kids, thanks to PPI-ME, but little to no interaction between their parents. Now you see their parents becoming more open, interacting and talking. I’m grateful that my American peers – Sam Presti and Chad Ford – have the same passion and get the same joy as I do from participating in PPI-ME. I’m impressed by the efforts of Karen and Samer, the two people who manage and lead PPI-ME. Their abilities to make connections in the Arab community have allowed the program to develop and grow. I reflect on the power of sports, how basketball can serve as a way to bring together two cultures, two groups of people, who have been in direct conflict for hundreds and hundreds of years. I return home knowing that this trip will be one I'll never forget.

Spurs.com conducted a Q & A with the two leaders of PeacePlayers International – Middle East, Karen, PPI-ME’s Managing Director and Samer, the Program Director for PPI-ME.

What is the greatest challenge that you face?

Karen: The current political climate. The Palestinian and Israeli children with whom we work have grown up during the Intifada, with check-points and terror attacks a part of their everyday lives. They are separated by both psychological borders as well as a physical wall. This is why PPI is so important. We provide the unique opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to communicate and connect in a positive setting, and to work together to make positive changes in their communities.

Are there people in the community who resist what you are doing?

Samer: There are plenty of people who are not so happy about PeacePlayers' work. This is for two reasons: (1) There are people who are against cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. They see their own people as traitors when they are involved in such cooperation; and (2) There are many people, especially in Palestinian communities, who do not approve of girls playing sports. We deal with this the best we can, mainly by building relationships with people in the community, gaining support from the parents, and from the schools. It's really all about trust. Additionally, we have created the best possible program that we can so that the kids and the parents are fully bought-in. When we started in 2005, we did not have one girl in the program. Now, more than 50 percent of our participants are girls.

How many kids do you serve? How are they recruited?

Karen: Since 2005, we have worked with more than 5,500 kids. During the 2010-11 year of programming, we had 500 children on our roster. In general, we partner with schools, community centers and sports clubs, from which children are recruited. However, we have not had to do much recruiting in several years, as communities are knocking down our doors. The demand is greater than what we can supply.

What is preventing you from expanding further?

Samer: Our main obstacle is funding. Only a little over half of our budget over the next two years is currently funded. We need to raise money to sustain our existing programs before expanding to more communities. I have to turn down proposals from communities every day, and sometimes I, unfortunately, am forced to turn away kids who want to join, because we just do not have room.

How do you know the program works?

Karen: We have plenty of stories that testify to the positive impact of the program. We also have hard data, which demonstrate that children's attitudes have improved significantly as a result of participation in the program. External evaluations have demonstrated the positive short-term and long-term effects of the program. More specifically, participants in the program experienced improved attitudes toward the "other side" on a number of variables: including stereotypes, ethno-centrism and willing for contact with the "other side”. What has been most encouraging is the long-term data which show even greater and sustained positive attitude change among participants who have been in the program since 2005.

Can each of you share a recent, or favorite, story that explains what success looks like?

Karen: Yuval, a Jewish PeacePlayer from West Jerusalem explained that prior to joining PPI-ME, she had never met and interacted with Arab girls (in spite of the fact that more than 33 percent of Jerusalem's population is Palestinian). She admitted that the first meeting was stressful and awkward, how the girls on her team were not so excited about their first "twinning." However, after three years in PeacePlayers, Yuval is proud to talk about her new Palestinian friends, with whom she plays ball, goes on trips and interacts frequently on Facebook. She and a talented Palestinian player, named Manar, from East Jerusalem, have developed a particularly close bond. Manar never had a Jewish friend before joining the program. Now, she considers Yuval one of her closest.

Samer: Just yesterday, two of our Palestinian participants went down to the Jewish community of Herzylia for a play date with one of the friends they have met through the program. The girls played basketball, went to the beach, and ate dinner together. The friendship that has developed among the girls has also brought in the parents, who have become friendly as they cheer for their girls together at PPI events. The parents already have plans to get together themselves.

What do you think makes it work?

Karen: I think that there are a number of factors that contribute to the effectiveness of our program.

(1) We bring together Palestinian and Israeli children, who would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet. PPI-ME provides a framework for long-term, frequent and meaningful interaction between these children; the type of interaction that leads to long-term, sustained and durable friendships;
(2) We reach populations who would not usually come to the table around the topic of peace (i.e. traditional, conservative, religious and socio-economically disadvantaged);
(3) We cultivate leaders. Children can begin the program when they are as young as six years old. At the age of 15, youth can join the Leadership Development Program, which grooms them to become leaders within the program and in the community at large;
(4) Kids do not want to sit in a classroom during their free time to talk about politics. Our curriculum engages children in discussion and experiential learning on the basketball court.

Samer: I also think the basketball component is very important. The more professional we are in the basketball department, the better we are bridging divides. Participants stay engaged and dedicated over the long term.

What have been some of your greatest achievements over the past year?

Karen: This past year, we took the unprecedented and historic step of enrolling the first-ever integrated team, The Jerusalem All-Stars, comprised of Palestinians and Israelis from East and West Jerusalem in the Israeli Basketball Association’s elite youth league. PPI-ME is especially proud of this initiative as it has impact not only at the grass-roots level, but at the institutional level as well. Through league games, tens of thousands of youth, parents, spectators and league officials, who are not affiliated with PPI-ME, have been exposed to our message.

What do you need? If someone is interested in PPI-ME, how can they help?

Karen: We need ambassadors around the world, who will spread the word, and need to continue to raise financial resources to run and expand our programs.

1. Learn more: Like PPI-ME on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/PeacePlayers-International-Middle-East/127137154017442 ) or follow PPI on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/peaceplayers).

2. Sponsor a child: With $250 you can support a child's participation in one full year of PPI peace-building and basketball activities. For $500 you can support two children, allowing a friendship to form on opposite sides of the conflict. You can make a gift online here or by sending a check to PeacePlayers International, 901 New York Avenue, Suite 550 East, Washington, DC 20001.

3. Visit us: PeacePlayers has an open door policy for visitors. Visits are family-friendly and life-changing. If you or anyone you know would like to visit the program in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus or Israel/West Bank, please contact Amy, Director of Development, for personalized planning – aselco@peaceplayersintl.org.