November 12, 2007 – Adam Bashar rose energetically to his feet to applaud the soccer players dressed in red and yellow uniforms trotting onto the pristine, green field below. The Friday morning match at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium between Hapoel Katamon-Mevasseret and Maccabi Kiryat Malachi was no ordinary game, and Bashar was no ordinary fan. Bashar was one of 50 political refugees from war-torn Darfur who was invited to the game as a goodwill gesture by the Mevasseret team, a uniquely mixed Jewish-Arab group from Mevasseret Zion and Abu Gosh, both communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The club’s president, Alon Liel, said that including the refugees fit into the team’s larger concept of promoting coexistence in Israel.”We are much more than soccer,” he said. “We support social action programs and helping refugees. We’re a team for everyone, including Darfurians.”
Thousands of African refugees have infiltrated into Israel from Egypt in recent years, many from the Darfur region of western Sudan where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced in fighting since 2003.
The Israeli government has sought a balance in giving refuge to those fleeing genocide while turning away a flood of illegal African immigrants, and it recently agreed to a compromise where it will grant 500 Darfurian refugees permanent residency.
Bashar, who escaped to Israel alone two years ago, now awaits word as to whether he will be among those permitted to stay. But he was all smiles as he greeted and thanked Liel for the invitation to the game in perfect spoken Hebrew. “They are letting us feel not just like refugees, but as part of a sport. They are saying we are with you, and it’s not just about politics.”
The New Israel Fund (NIF), www.nif.org a social justice non-profit organization, helped Liel organize the event, providing transportation for the refugees from their temporary homes in Tel Aviv. “We wanted to show them that as Israeli society we have a warm heart. We wanted to send a message that we will deal with the refugees openly,” said NIF organizer Udi Arnon.Some 3,000 fans applauded in agreement when the refugees were invited down to the field and introduced personally by the announcer.
Mevasseret soccer club is led by joint Arab-Jewish management, the first of its kind in Israel, and is encouraged to see the team rising through the ranks of Israeli soccer. “We’re the antithesis to all the other teams in Jerusalem,” Liel said.
For a brief time, at least, hardships were forgotten and the Darfurians and the Israelis cheered as one.