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Palestinian Paralympian's struggle, triumph and disappointment

Oct. 14, 2008 1:47 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 14, 2008 1:47 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Husam Azzam is disappointed. Placing eighth at the Paralympics in Beijing after winning silver in Athens and bronze in Sydney, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Husam lives in Gaza, in the Jabaliya district north of Gaza City. He contracted polio as an infant, and lost the use of his legs. Despite his disability Husam was always athletic. He went to the gym and lifted weights regularly; he played table tennis and basketball with the Palestine Sports Federation for the Disabled (PSFD), which runs sports programs and clubs across Gaza and the West Bank.

With the encouragement of the PSFD and its technical coordinator Maher Rady he trained for the javelin and travelled to Jordan to participate in his first ever competition for disabled athletes. He won gold at ping-pong and silver in javelin.

Husam trained in school playgrounds for javelin and later shot put, though he admits that the locations available in the Gaza Strip are "not suitable spaces to train and be prepared for international competitions."

Despite the limited training facilities, Husam triumphed winning two gold and a bronze in a Mediterranean championship in Egypt, and another silver in France.

By 2000, Husam was in training for the Paralympics.

Travel and training costs for international events were funded by the PSFD. Initially supported by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the federation continues to receive some money from the Palestinian Authority (PA), though most donations come from private citizens in Palestine.

Established in the late 1990s by Palestinians injured during the first intifadah, the PSFD has goals similar to the founders of the Paralympics themselves, which were designed as part of the rehabilitation program of World War I veterans. At first only accommodating vets with spinal injuries, the Paralympics grew to recognize the athletic achievements of all individuals with disabilities.

In parallel, the founding members of the PSFD - all injured in battles with Israeli troops - believed that "disabled people should continue their lives, [that] after injury they have the right to practice sport as well as all other people."

While Husam has "no idea" where financial support for the federation comes from, he does know that more is needed if disabled athletes are to truly represent Palestine.

This is where Husam's disappointment shows.

Despite being the only Palestinian to medal at an Olympic event, Husam has earned very little recognition or respect from within his community.

"People in Gaza don't give Paralympic athletes much attention," Husam explained. "They look at us as a source of entertainment and they don't see how much we train and suffer."

What particularly frustrated Husam was that his efforts were geared to reflect his pride in Palestine, but, he said, people don't seem to care that he trains so hard "to have high scores and to make Palestine the first in all competitions."

Husam believes that the Paralympic athletes from Palestine may represent the country and its spirit more than athletes at the traditional Olympic events.

Many of Husam's own team mates were injured during the first or second intifadah, during which they were either acting as resistance fighters or were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Regardless, he says, "most of them have sacrificed their bodies for the sake of Palestine; they are the ones who should be so highly appreciated."

After the Sydney Olympics Husam was asked to stay in Australia to train; he was tempted by the unlimited access to international training facilities, a large peer group with which to train and even financial support from various sports associations. After thinking about it, however, Husam concluded that it would be "high treason against my country and my homeland," if he did not return to work, train and survive in Gaza.

During the four years after Sydney and before Athens, Husam trained in empty schoolyards and used the resources and support from the PSFD. He found so much encouragement from within the federation that he managed a silver medal in Greece.

Between 2004 and 2008, however, the situation in Gaza became grim. The 2006 election of Hamas meant next to no aid money made it into the area, and money that might have gone into sport was funneled elsewhere.

The Israeli siege imposed on Gaza made life for all Gazans more difficult and Husam was no exception. Personal problems and a general depression prevented him from training, and details of life under siege occupied most of his time.

Shortly before the Beijing Paralympics, however, Rady from the PSFD convinced him to go. They worked out a training schedule that included travelling to Tunisia for an intensive training camp that would whip Husam into shape in preparation for the late-summer competition.

Plans were foiled, however, when Israel and then Egypt refused Husam and his coaches permission to leave Gaza. For a while the team was not even sure that they would be allowed out for the Paralympics themselves.

The team was granted eleventh-hour permission, but Husam arrived at the games uninspired and, by his own high standards "out of shape."

What gave him the courage to compete, he said, was something that happened during the opening ceremonies for the Games.

Husam, carrying the Palestinian flag during the opening procession, sat depressed in his chair, watching other athletes in matching gear, lightweight wheelchairs or the latest in prosthetic limbs and large teams of coaches parade alongside him. As Husam passed the plinth where the Chinese president sat, however, the man looked down at him and stood to clap.

"It gave me a lot of spirit to see that we were the only team that the president stood up for," he said.

While Husam was disappointed in his performance at the Beijing games, he was not expecting to set a personal record since he had not been able to train. He was, in fact, happy that he had been able to still compete at a high-level and left China satisfied.

When he arrived back in Gaza however, he was again disappointed. "There was no party," he commented, "no hero's welcome."

There he was, representing the painful past, the grueling present and potential for triumph for the Palestinian people; but Husam found himself celebrating his successes with only the PSFD community.

"I face so many challenges in life and now I am so tired, too tired to continue with this challenge when I find so very little encouragement."

Husam wishes the PSFD would get more support; that Palestinians would recognize the federation as not only an organization that supports those who have been injured by wars their country has fought, but recognize the potential of the institution as a means of re-activating and rehabilitating many Palestinians.

Working in the West Bank and Gaza, the PSFD has over 1,000 members, and works towards the integration of disabled Palestinians into "average" society, developing individuals through sport, and the promotion of positive energy in people with disabilities for the betterment of the wider society.

"I am going to be honest and speak frankly," concluded Husam, "It is our society which is disabled, not me."

***By Ma'an English Department, with reporting from Razan Salameh.
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