Keren and Sireen (both 16), live five minutes away from each other, but on the opposite sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide in Jerusalem. In the years that they have been PeacePlayers teammates and friends, that divide has become a bit easier to cross.But in 2020, COVID-19 put up a new barrier, not just between Keren and Sireen, but between people and their families, friends, and communities. As members of the competitive Palestinian-Israeli All-Star teams, which compete in the Israel Basketball Association’s youth leagues, Sireen and Keren went from meeting for practice nearly every day to nothing at all. “In the beginning of the time of COVID, we were cut off from everything. I didn’t have [contact] with school, or friends -I didn’t meet up with anyone,” shared Sireen.
Although our youth were cut off from much of their immediate circles, COVID did offer an unexpected opportunity -to connect our youth from around the world and spend the year building our global youth movement for peace and equity. But before youth can work together on complex social issues, first they have to be friends and have fun together. This is where the Virtual Friendship Games (founded by Ed and Penelope Peskowitz) came in. All year, through monthly Cultural Twinnings, young people in South Africa, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus and the United States got together on Zoom to build friendships, play games and learn about each other’s cultures.
For Keren, the global virtual encounters helped Keren feel like being a PeacePlayers went well beyond being part of her own team:
Along with being part of something greater comes gaining the understanding and empathy for what someone else is going through. For Sireen, Keren and many PeacePlayers around the globe, this meant taking comfort in knowing they were not alone in the challenges they faced. “Without the sessions with the other sites, I would only see the Covid situation here, so it helped me see other people, from outside the countries, how they live, what their circumstances are like, what’s going on there, or is it just like this here? It also helped me understand that some things are different, it’s not the same. But at the same time, it’s hard for everyone. And also that I should look at the positive things, because it’s not just hard for me. And it’s not just hard for Keren. It gave me a sort of motivation to understand.”
For Keren, the Virtual Friendship Games even helped her put her local conflict, the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in context. “The encounters… made me understand that conflicts aren’t just things that happen in Israel, to understand that conflict is something that happens in life and you need to know how to deal with it, and put it in proportion, to understand that these are things that happen, and you have to deal with them in positive ways.”