The disabled of Gaza have warmly welcomed the long-awaited visit of American basketball coach Jess Markt.
Markt, a 40-year-old disabled basketball trainer, is visiting Gaza for the second year in a row to train wheelchair basketball teams in the besieged coastal enclave. It is hoped that his visit will help establish teams for the paralyzed men and women to play basketball regularly.
Markt is very absorbed inside the closed sport hall, guiding and watching the players in their wheelchairs. His coaching ranges from the basic rules of the sport to the more subtle skills designed for people with special needs.
The American coach chose to play basketball three years after a car accident that left him with a severe spinal cord injury when he was 19 years old. He perceives sports as a therapeutic tool that can accelerate the rehabilitation process requisite after a severe causality that completely alters one’s life. The physical rehabilitation approach is highly needed in Gaza, where the numbers of those physically disabled have doubled in the successive Israeli onslaughts waged on the Strip.
According to the Gazan Ministry of Health, more than 43 thousand Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are with special needs, constituting 2.4 percent of the population.
“Playing basketball on a daily basis will make Gaza’s disabled feel better, and it will certainly improve their sore and weak muscles,” Markt said. “They should be granted all they need of special halls and equipment to give them the chance to master the play and sharpen their skills in basketball.”
Markt will remain in the Gaza Strip for three weeks to train as many players and coaches in preparation for possible local and international tournaments in the future.
The International Committee of the Red Cross brought Markt last year, and coordinated his visit again as part of its program to support Palestinians with physical disabilities in Gaza. This step could encourage them to adjust to their new health conditions and work to avoid exclusion and isolation within their communities.
The ICRC will organize a tournament at the conclusion of Markt’s visit to allow the players to implement and present their acquired skills.
Apart from Palestine, Markt has worked with the ICRC to bring this initiative to other places where conflicts impede practicing sport in a safe environment, including Afghanistan and Cambodia.
Mansour Shat, 37, sees in Markt’s visit a golden chance to sharpen his skills in basketball. He is very careful to attend all training sessions held by the American coach, never missing a detail or a move that could add to his skills.
“I want to move from being a beginning player to a skilled one. I always feel thrilled when I play basketball, but with Markt’s training and guidance, the play has another taste,” Mansour said.
He was severely injured during the Israeli onslaught waged on Gaza in 2012, and doctors decided to amputate his right leg, an incident he deems the most tragic in his life.
“My life became a living hell; I had difficulty accepting my new situation and I was not given the care needed from my surroundings, which aggravated the case,” he added.
However, Mansour’s decision to play basketball helps ease the troubles of his new life and provides him with a platform where he can spend his time practicing a sport that intrigues him.
According to Kamal Abu-Hassan, the head of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee, Markt’s visits to Gaza are giving people with disabilities a push to make progress and achieve success in their sport.
“Most of the disabled in Gaza turn to basketball because it can be played with the hands and many of them suffer from mobility disabilities,” he said.
Abu-Hassan is witnessing a marked increase in the number of people with disability who are coming to train with Markt this year. “It is their first choice, they organize their teams and matches around the year and they are very happy with the initiative,” he added.
Men are not alone in that regard. Disabled women in Gaza are also highly encouraged to assemble their own teams and play basketball in the closed hall.
Markt hopes that his visit will encourage women to play basketball more seriously. “Women should not be excluded when talking about the importance of sport, particularly for those with special needs,” he said. “I am going to train about twenty women this time, and other trainers will continue with the rest who might be interested to join the training with their friends.”
Zakia el-Shoubaki was born with a disability, and now decided to play basketball.
“At the beginning, I was not convinced in the efficacy of playing basketball in my case,” she said.
Yet, the 22-year-old woman has changed her mind when her friend invited her to see the activity at the hall. She was fascinated with the moves and the atmosphere. She was very happy when she saw her friend play and enjoy the game.
“From that day, I decided to join the training with my friend. I am still a beginner, but I hope that I will improve my skills with more time I dedicate for practice,” she added.
In a conservative society like Gaza, playing sport is not conventional for women. “We hope that all women in Gaza would realize how important sport is for our health and our lives,” el-Shoubaki concluded.