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Gaza auto racers struggle to compete abroad

Oct. 5, 2013 2:31 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 30, 2013 5:37 P.M.)
By: Alexa Stevens
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- "This competition," director Johan Ericksson started Thursday, "can be described as the Arab Idol for petrol heads."

The audience at Jerusalem's Dar Issam Nashashibi Center laughed appreciatively as he introduced his new documentary, "The Road to Silverstone."

The film chronicles a group of Palestinian students who travel to England to enter the Formula Student competition at Silverstone Circuit, known as the home of British Motor Racing.

The road to Silverstone proved to be bumpy for the students of Khan Younis Training College, a school located in Southern Gaza and founded in 2006 by UNRWA, the UN's Palestine refugee agency.

After shipments of new parts from Italy failed to arrive, the Khan Younis team found new, or rather old, supplies for their production. Taking parts from older cars, including dated Fiat Puntos, the team spent a year and a half designing and constructing one from scratch, making the first Palestinian Formula One car.

Ghassan Abu-Orf, the protagonist of the film and dean of the college, obtained permission to leave Gaza through Israel's Erez crossing to attend the documentary's debut in East Jerusalem.

He noted that there were "alarms" which warned him "that (they) may not be able to get there," such as the students' requests for visas being denied or the refusal of the Gaza government to let them leave. After two tries, all but one member of the group successfully exited Gaza, all of them for the first time.

In his film, Eriksson includes a lingering scene of the group boarding their first flight, destined for London. As technical students, they understand the risks associated with the man-made aircraft.

"As for aviation nothing is perfect … There shouldn't be problems but an engine failure can happen at any time," one student notes.

After successfully arriving at Silverstone, the team is barraged with culture shock, notably the resources of the other teams.

"The boys were checking out the competing cars. I remember one of them saying 'Let's go back to Gaza.' The other cars are not like ours," the team's business manager says.

After an entire day re-assembling their car and undergoing inspection from Silverstone's "scrutineers" -- the technical assessors come from companies such as Jaguar and Aston Motors -- the students return to their hotel room to prepare for the business model competition the next day.

As they go over calculations, their presentation and the final details, Abu-Orf reminds the team that this "a chance to prove to the world that we can live just like them."

Hard work and ambition pays off. The Khan Younis team came in third in the business competition, an unexpectedly high result. Race day was characteristically rainy, and even though the KYTC team lost the one race they entered, the team still cheered as if they had won.

After Wednesday's screening concluded, Abu-Orf took the microphone to speak about his motivation.

"Telling them that hard working is the real way, is the real route, to achieving, especially being under occupation, and under siege, and in our circumstances," he said.

And the circumstances facing the team back home are close to indomitable.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness describes the situation in Gaza as a "poverty trap" due to Israel's blockade of the coastal territory, which wrecks "economic havoc" and condemns many to unemployment and aid dependency.

Asked about the team's future, Abu-Orf said that the economic situation in Gaza is "really bad."

"Even for degree holders" he said, finding work can be hard. "Although they have been trained to maintain, commission, repair moving cars, the complex situation in Gaza wouldn't allow them to even to take a chance, with braveness, to start such work."

Ericksson, the director, emphasized the dual role the film played in creating potential change.

"You need to bring it to the Palestinians, but at the same time you need to push it, and just do the sales pitch and sell it," he said.

Gunness agrees: "The film is a great way to build bridges between one of the most isolated societies on the planet and global audiences. It showcases the amazing inventiveness, determination and creativity of people in Gaza and is shows what they could achieve if given half a chance."

After touring the Nordic states, the film is being premiered worldwide.
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