Hoops and harmony: How PeacePlayers is changing the Middle East

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BEIT SAFAFA, Israel -- When sitting on a rooftop in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Safafa, overlooking some of the most contested real estate in the world, the oldest, most intractable conflict in the world seems more peaceful.

The streets, on the Jewish Sabbath, are quiet and almost empty. A young boy comes along, weaving his bike up and down the street. The murmuring of Palestinians getting ready for another Friday night wedding adds an anticipatory atmosphere to the moment.

From here, you can get a bird's-eye view of the conflict that has rocked the world.

To your right, you can see the old walled city, home of ancient sites like the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, some of the holiest sites in the world to the three major monotheistic religions.

In the center are glistening high-rises -- condos owned by Israelis who spend several million dollars for a glimpse of the old city from their window -- and the restaurants and bus stops that have been targets for Palestinian suicide bombers for years.

To your left, you can see the red roofs of Israeli settlers, every one built to create and keep a majority of Jews in Israel.

In the middle of all this is the tiny village of Beit Safafa, the last remaining Palestinian neighborhood in West Jerusalem, surrounded on all sides by the ever-growing, prosperous Israel.

In this old, dusty village, two cousins -- Ghassan and Samer Alayan -- wearing sweat-drenched PeacePlayers International shirts sit and talk about the history of Beit Safafa. They speak of resistance and cooperation, roots and exile, the joy and the despair of everyone, on both sides, who chooses to live in this place. Both have just spent the past week running coexistence and leadership basketball camps in Israel and the West Bank.

Ghassan's father ambles up the stairs and joins the conversation.

He looks at the PeacePlayers shirts with a furrowed brow.

"This word 'peace,' " he says, pointing to the shirts. "We [Palestinians] hate this word. Peace, peace, everyone always comes talking about peace. You know the problem with this word? Everyone talks about peace. No one does peace. We are tired of hearing a word that is not real."

In August, I spent a week in Israel and the West Bank following up with a program that we covered last year: PeacePlayers International (formerly Playing for Peace). PeacePlayers is a program that, through the game of basketball, brings together young people living in communities of conflict.

Here, the main activity of PeacePlayers is the Twinned Basketball Clubs, a program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth on a weekly basis. The youth participate in basketball, life skills and leadership training, in addition to activities that facilitate intergroup relations and dialogue. Ideally, children begin the program at age 10 and continue until age 16, when they have a chance to become coaches and role models for the youth in their communities.

While PeacePlayers has created deep roots in Northern Ireland and South Africa, the Middle East poses unique challenges that make it harder to measure success. Still, PeacePlayers is experiencing tremendous growth in the Middle East, having worked with more than 2,000 youth. Last year, 600 children enrolled in its yearlong program, with some 40 local coaches employed and 15 interns trained.

When I returned last month to Israel and Palestine to see if the promising seeds of peace were bearing fruit, what I experienced was both exhilarating and exhausting -- both inspiring and discouraging.

The following are the stories of the dedicated volunteers in the region who are planting those seeds. They range from the general manager of the NBA champs to a former Israeli solider who once raised tigers in Thailand to a 13-year-old Jericho girl who made a splash this summer in North Carolina when she was named to an All-Star team of 16- and 17-year-olds.

Each one, in his or her own way, is taking the sport of basketball and using it as a tool for peace.

Yoav Shapiro, PeacePlayers Coach

What's more difficult: serving in the combat unit of the Israeli army, raising tigers in Thailand or coaching 10 Palestinian and Israeli kids as part of the Building Bridges camp for PeacePlayers?

Yoav Shapiro is one of the few people qualified to answer.

Five years ago, Yoav was one of the more promising young players in Israel. He was on his way to leading the Haopel Jerusalem youth team to the city finals when he received a phone call that changed his life.

A bomb had detonated inside Hebrew University's student center cafeteria. At first, his family told him that his aunt, Levina Shapiro, who worked at the university, was fine. But as the day went on, doubts grew. His family went from hospital to hospital looking for her. Only later that night did they learn the truth. Levina Shapiro was dead.

Overall, nine people were killed and 85 wounded. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Yoav was out for revenge.

In a few months he was headed for the mandatory three-year military service. Yoav was talented enough to get out of combat with a cushy job teaching physical education and playing basketball in the army. Most Israelis would have jumped at the chance, but Yoav had different ideas.

"I told them that I wanted to be on the battlefield," Yoav remembers. "I want to kill the Arabs. I wanted revenge most of all. They had taken away something from me, now it was my turn."

Yoav was assigned to the Israeli combat unit near the border of Lebanon. The unit's enemy was Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group of Shiites that disputes the northern border of Israel, the Golan Heights.

While serving in the army can harden a soldier's view, it had a different effect on Yoav.

"I had many chances to kill them, but I couldn't do it," he says with a pained expression. His reddhish hair is in dreadlocks, his facial hair a Fu Manchu.

"I would see them taunting us, and it made me angry. But then, after while, I began to understand why he hates us. We destroyed his neighborhood. We took his things from his house. We mistreated him at the checkpoints. Everyone, Israelis and Arabs, were behaving the wrong way."

When his army service ended, Yoav left Israel on a spiritual journey of sorts. He backpacked through India and ended up in a Buddhist monastery that raised orphaned tigers. He ate one meal a day, meditated and tried to find a new path in life.

Several months ago, he returned to Israel. And for the first time in a while, he laced up his basketball shoes and began to return to the game he loved.

Just a few weeks ago, while playing pickup ball at Bell Park (the Israeli version of Rucker Park), he ran into Mike Vaughan-Cherubin, a program director for PeacePlayers.

He saw the PeacePlayers shirt and began asking questions.

"In all of the time I've spent at Bell Park, I've never had anyone so curious at what we were doing," Mike says. "When I got done explaining it, he immediately said, 'Can I volunteer?' That's never happened before."

A week later, Yoav was a camp counselor working with 10 Israeli and Arab children at the basketball camp.

The first day was rocky.

"The kids were cursing at each other and refusing to pass to each other," he says. "One Israeli kid was teasing an Arab kid, and finally he just lost it and said, 'Get away from me, you smelly Jew.' I was shocked, but I also knew where they were coming from. It brought out some deep hurt to see them fighting like that."

By Day 2, things began to change. After a night of movie-watching and swimming, and with competitive games on the line, the kids were starting to get along.

As the camp prepares to end, an ecstatic Yoav is bouncing around the gym. "Can you believe this? They are playing together. Passing to each other. High-fiving! If you had asked me if this was possible yesterday, I would say it was impossible. Today, everything is possible."

That evening, Yoav commits to working in the program in Jerusalem for the entire year.

"I'm not sure I was ready for this when I came," he says in a subdued voice later that night. "My family doesn't like Arab people. I didn't like them either.

"But when you see things like this, it causes you to re-examine your assumptions. Maybe I do believe that peace can still come. Maybe the problem is, we just don't know the way. Seeing basketball used like this makes me think that maybe there's a way."

Ghassan Alayan, Palestinian Player and PeacePlayers Coach

Trapped behind a towering concrete wall just 100 yards from his home, Ghassan Alayan, with his 3-year-old son, Mohammed, on his lap, still stares in disbelief three years after the Israeli security wall was built, separating his Jerusalem home from the rest of his family.

"There was a time when I could get in my car, drive 10 minutes, and be at work or at my family's home in Beit Sefafa," he says dejectedly. "Now, with the wall and the checkpoints, sometimes it takes two hours to make the same trip. Much of my life is now spent sitting in a long traffic queue, waiting and waiting.

"I am not a terrorist. But every day, I'm treated like one. Some days as we cross, the Israeli soldiers take us into another room and treat us with much disrespect," he says, motioning like someone is slapping or beating him. "Sometimes it's very hard in these conditions to speak of peace."

Yet here is Ghassan, one of the coaches for a team in the East Jerusalem suburb of Isawiyya, not only speaking of peace, but trying to create it, too.

Ghassan has had a long, rocky journey toward PeacePlayers.

As a gifted, athletic guard, Ghassan played for Bethlehem University, the Palestinian national team and a professional Palestinian team. He and his cousin, Samer, were the only Arabs to show up to play three-on-three basketball regularly in Bell Park. During an adidas Streetball tournament in 1997 in Jerusalem, his team made it to the semifinals.

"It was not a game, it was a war," Ghassan remembers. "Israelis surrounded the court. Whenever we would get near the baseline, the Israeli fans would push us down. They all shouted, 'Death to the Arabs!' You have never seen anything like it."

Ghassan's team lost in the semifinals, but the difficult conditions won him and his team a few admirers. Even though some fans wanted him dead, Israeli players congratulated him and his team for their play.

"Playing basketball, for the first time in my life, brought me some respect," Ghassan says. "I didn't forget this."

For the next few years, Ghassan and Samer took coaching classes at the Wingate Institute for Sport near Netanya, Israel. The courses were in Hebrew, a language foreign to almost all Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem, but the cousins got by.

Ghassan and Samer tried to start a professional team in Beit Sefafa, but the team folded after four months. When PeacePlayers co-founder Sean Tuohey met him in 2005, Ghassan was coaching a Palestinian pro team for $250 a month.

Tuohey told him they were looking for coaches to start teams in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Suddenly, Ghassan found his new calling in life.

"I was waiting for that moment," he said. "The Arab kids here have nothing to do, and they don't learn how to play basketball. No one taught me how to run, shoot a jump shot or set a pick. I had to learn that on my own. I wanted to pass it on. We had to pass it on."

Ghassan admits that the basketball part of PeacePlayers is more important to him than the peace part -- a common reality for many of the participants.

This means PeacePlayers is preaching not only to the converted, the liberal, the open-minded children who already want peace. PeacePlayers is engaging coaches and children who might not initially be open to integration or conciliation. As a general rule, "encounter programs" suffer because the participants are self-selected to fit the program. The fact that PeacePlayers overcomes this hurdle attests to the power of sport to bring together people who otherwise would not be open to meeting and interacting with each other.

Still, given the circumstances, Ghassan remains skeptical that peace can be made via basketball or anything else.

He notes the disparities between the two groups still serve as a wall. Most of the Israeli kids play in new, air-conditioned gyms. Only two such gyms exist for Arabs in the country. The Arab kids almost always have to travel to the Israeli towns when the teams mix. The Israeli parents won't allow their kids to visit the Arab areas -- which leads to less understanding among the Israeli players about the conditions that many Palestinians face.

Furthermore, although Ghassan is reluctant to admit it, the truth is that the Jewish children are not welcome in many of the Arab communities. For the Palestinian kids who live behind the wall, traveling to the Israeli side to mix is virtually impossible, while for the Israeli kids, traveling behind the wall is against the law.

Even when PeacePlayers can secure permits for the Palestinian children who live behind the wall, sometimes things fall apart. PeacePlayers was able to facilitate entry permits from the Israeli military for the children from Tul Karem and permission from their parents to attend the Building Bridges camp. But people in the Tul Karem community not affiliated with PeacePlayers complained about this potential cooperation with Israelis. Tension was high, and to keep the children safe, the coaches eventually decided not to send the kids.

Despite the problems in making peace in the region, Ghassan has noticed changes in his kids, the Israeli kids and himself since starting the program.

"I think we've learned respect for each other through the game," he says. "Right now, [the Israeli kids] are better players, and if you want to be good, you have to play with the best. I think the Arab kids respect the Israelis for how they play. And I think the Israeli kids have found out that Arab kids can play if you give them the chance and similar resources.

"This conflict is about a lot of things, but clearly a lack of respect is at the heart of it. If this program builds even a little of that, I've seen what it can do."

R. C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs General Manager

What does the most successful NBA general manager of the past decade do in the offseason?

For the past several years, as a board member of PeacePlayers, R.C. Buford has been providing hands-on support. Last September, he checked out the PeacePlayers program in Durban, South Africa. In October, on his way back from the Spurs' preseason games in France, he stopped to lend a hand in Northern Ireland. And in August, he made his first visit to Israel for the PeacePlayers' second annual Building Bridges program.

The Building Bridges program brought together about 80 young Palestinian and Israeli ballplayers for a two-day, overnight camp, where they learned basketball skills during the day and spent time together at night. Sponsored by adidas, the campers all got uniforms, a new pair of high-tops and other gear.

Buford learned about PeacePlayers from Ron Shapiro, a high-powered baseball agent who serves as chair of the PeacePlayers board. Two former Spurs, Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry, also sit on the board, along with NBA super-agent Arn Tellem.

Buford seems almost reclusive in his role with the Spurs. But in Israel, he opens up with the kids. He runs basketball drill stations, jokes with the kids during a water break, hands out awards and even conducts a late-night coaching clinic for the PeacePlayers coaches.

"PeacePlayers is a great opportunity to be around kids using basketball to bridge damaged relationships in areas that need some good things to happen," Buford says.

As the GM for the Spurs, Buford is known as a guy who can see the big picture. From the sound of things, that trait has helped PeacePlayers.

"Basketball is a game where all five players need to share the ball," Buford says. "If it is played with great teamwork, the sum of the parts is greater than the individual. It's a great forum for building trust. A lot of the game happens with things you can't see. Communication and trust with teammates is the key. It seems to me that the same can be said of peacemaking."

Buford's support of PeacePlayers isn't the only area in which he has given kids a chance.

In 2004, during a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, Buford met a 15-year-old player from Cameroon, Alexis Mang-Ikri Wangmene.

The two immediately hit it off, despite not speaking the same language, and at the end of the camp, Buford asked Alexis if he would like move to the United States, play high school basketball and live with Buford's family.

Three years later, Buford refers to Alexis as his adopted son. Alexis is expected to play for Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns as a freshman in the fall.

"I'm not a sociologist, but to me, kids are the same everywhere," Buford says. "The issues these kids face are really imposed on them by the adults. Anytime you can find a way to provide them with a fresh canvas to rewrite the existing story, you give them a chance to make the world a better place."

Khaled, Isawiyya Assistant Coach

Last year, we profiled a 14-year-old named Khaled from the gritty East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyya, along with his newfound friend Pini from the Jewish suburb of Bet Shemesh. Since we last documented them, Khaled and Pini have taken divergent paths, revealing some of the greatest hopes and biggest disappointments of the program.

Khaled not only continued to develop his skills, he received the chance of the lifetime this summer when PeacePlayers took a group of Palestinian and Israeli kids on a two-week trip to the United States.

Khaled and 19 other young people, sponsored by a grant for Friedman Billings Ramsey, traveled to Washington, D.C., then down to Achievements Unlimited Basketball Camp in Greensboro, N.C., during two weeks of basketball and sightseeing. The kids toured the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, met NBA players like Emeka Okafor, Antawn Jamison and Bruce Bowen, and competed alongside Americans in a basketball tournament.

The experience changed Khaled's life yet again.

"I was so very happy to go and see something that I never knew," he says. "I had heard so many things about America. Some good, some bad. It was great to view it through your own eyes."

While Khaled can't stop talking about the roller coasters at Six Flags or his autographs from NBA players, he developed two skills -- one on the basketball court and one off it -- that will have a larger impact on his life.

On the court, the chance to play against Americans his age taught him how much better he could get with practice and coaching. "The players were at a different level there," he says. "I watched them closely and listened carefully so hopefully I can improve my game."

He also got a confidence boost when he walked away with the Mr. Hustle award at the camp. The award recognized his energy and motor on the court, but it also was a reflection of who he was off the court, both on the trip and in Israel, according to several program directors who were at the camp. Khaled took the role of mentor to many of the younger players in the camp. He made sure everyone's needs were taken care of and even earned a nickname: Coach Khaled.

Khaled's leadership during the camp illustrated one of the PeacePlayers ideas that makes the program sustainable -- making mentors and coaches of the older players in the program.

With several others, Khaled will pilot the new Leadership Development program this fall. Several participants in the Leadership Development program, including Khaled, were at the Building Bridges camp, leading drills, translating and working together -- Israeli and Palestinian -- as an example to the kids.

If Khaled is an example of the success a program like PeacePlayers can have in changing the lives of kids, then Pini is an example of another very real outcome.

Shortly after Pini was featured by ESPN, he dropped out of the program. Khaled said he heard Pini left the program to focus on soccer, the other sport of passion in Israel and the West Bank. Another PeacePlayers coach, Tomer Price, said that Pini's family no longer supported him.

Bar and Serene, Katamon and Isawiyya PeacePlayers

Here's something rare: A 13-year-old Muslim girl from Isawiyaa travels across town to visit a Jewish girl from the Jewish ghetto of Katamon, even though they don't speak the same language.

That's at the heart of another success story from PeacePlayers' new girls' program. The girls' program was launched last September as a partnership with the Jerusalem Girl's Basketball League. PeacePlayers' involvement signified the first time Arab girls were included in the league. With the support of coaches like Osnat Ginati, an Israeli women's basketball player from Jerusalem, the demand for the program has been enormous.

Osnat remembers what it was like as a 10-year-old girl trying to get into a pickup game in Jerusalem. The local YMCA offered a girls' program that she played in, but otherwise, the opportunities weren't there.

Eventually Osnat gave up her love for basketball, served in the army, got married and moved to Hong Kong for eight years. A divorce brought her back to Israel about 10 years ago, along with her two children, Amir and Aviv.

She worked in a local psychologist's office by day and started playing ball in the local workers' league at night, but craved the opportunity to do more. Like Ghassan, Samer and others, she took a coaching class at Wingate and eventually began coaching a few teams.

When PeacePlayers came calling, she jumped at the chance.

"As a girl, my father worked with Arabs and we would go visit them and eat in their homes all of the time," she says. "Those were good memories. But in the army, I was always hit with stones whenever I'd enter an Arab area. I knew both sides of the story, and I wanted better for my children."

She started coaching two teams and eventually met Bar, a poor Jewish girl from a ghetto in Jerusalem. (A number of Jews in pockets of Israel are impoverished, a fact that often stuns Arab children who believe all Israelis are rich.)

While Bar has a number of things working against her, she is outgoing and quick to make friends, like many others who have joined the program.

"I think with girls it's easier," Osnat says. "The boys take longer to warm up to each other. The girls sometimes change e-mail addresses at the first meeting. I think the biggest issue is culture. Many of the Jewish girls from the poorer neighborhoods swear and dress in ways that the Arab girls find immodest. That's been the biggest obstacle."

On our visit to Bar's house, Serene, a Palestinian girl from Isawiyya whom Bar met on the trip to the United States, asks if she can come, too. Serene has never been inside a Jewish home. She is curious to get a picture of where her friend lives.

Bar lives in a dilapidated brick apartment building reminiscent of American ghettos. During the interview, gunshots ring out, followed by the sound of sirens. Later, we find out that a shooting took place just a few buildings down from Bar's apartment.

Bar says the pressures not to mix might be stronger than Osnat lets on. "I like to become friends with everyone, it doesn't matter who," she says, sipping soda in her small apartment. "That's the way I was taught. But not all the kids think that way. I've been teased for spending too much time with Palestinians."

So how did she hook up with Serene?

"I remember that I got to interview her before we went, and she said snitzel is her favorite food. It's mine, too, so I thought we had something in common," Bar says.

Bar made Serene a welcome sign and gave her a balloon when she arrived in the United States, and a friendship was born.

"It was so amazing to see that she was so interested to meet me," Serene says. "When I saw the welcome paper, I thought we could be good friends."

But it took a crucial decision for Bar to cement the friendship. The Palestinian kids had arrived a day later. The Israeli kids had been to the National Zoo in D.C., and the Palestinian kids were scheduled to go the next day. Of the Israelis, only Bar offered to give up the group activity for the day and return to the zoo with the Palestinian kids.

"I was thinking that Jewish people were cold and didn't like Palestinians," Serene remembers. "But Bar was warm and cared. I think she trusted us, and that was great."

The two girls embrace after the interview. There seems to be a real connection, and Serene says she is trying to learn Hebrew to facilitate the communication between the two. Over the course of the next year, Bar and Serene will have the chance to interact often as part of the Twinned Basketball Clubs. The goal is that the friendship will continue to deepen over the next five years as they continue to interact and get to know each other.

While the creation of one friendship might seem small, it's exactly these type of bonds that PeacePlayers creates to set the foundation for peace and communication. The story of Bar and Serene, says Osnat, has an important effect not only on the kids, but also on the adults.

"I think kids like that, who are willing to open themselves up, despite real danger of being rejected, inspire us all to be better," Osnat says with tears in her eyes. "Some of my family tells me I'm crazy to believe a program like this will ever work. That Arabs will never change. But I see this, and I say to myself, maybe both of us are capable of change."

Brian Sigafoos, PeacePlayers Program Director

Running basketball camps for Israeli and Palestian children in the morning. Playing basketball in the Palestinian pro league at night.

That's the life of Brian Sigafoos, a Harvard-educated 7-footer from New Jersey and one of several American program directors for PeacePlayers.

After a stress fracture during his senior year at Harvard derailed his NBA dreams, Sigafoos roamed the world, playing in Portugal for 40 days, in Denmark for a season, with the USBL New Jersey Fliers in the summer and even in Taiwan. Eventually, he found himself in Lebanon and enchanted with the Middle East. That was when he first read about PeacePlayers.

He desperately wanted to become a director for the program, but his timing couldn't have been worse. Hezbollah was launching rockets into Israel, and Israel was retaliating full on.

Sigafoos persevered, buying his own plane ticket and traveling to Israel, hoping for something to break. While PeacePlayers waited for the bombing to end, Sigafoos needed a job. Two weeks into his stay, he met the coach of a pro club in Ramallah inside the West Bank and was offered an apartment, food and a starting job for the local team -- the Orthodox Ramallah Club -- as long as he would play for free.

A year later, Sigafoos is treated like royalty in Ramallah and has become the face of PeacePlayers in the West Bank. He speaks eloquently about both the conflict and basketball. He avoids the angry mobs that sometimes appear at his games, and he's developed a strong relationship with the kids in Tul Karem, Jehrico and East Jerusalem.

"You come here with one impression about the place and the people," Sigafoos says. "But it's totally erased when you're here. The people are better than you'd think. The conflict is more complicated that it appears from the outside. But most of all, you just see a lot of people trying to create a normal life out of an extraordinary situation.

"My work for PeacePlayers has been so rewarding to me personally because of the challenges we face on a daily basis. It's hard to make a difference in the larger context of the conflict. We're not overreaching or deluding ourselves in that way. What we can do, as a small and passionate grassroots organization, is make a real difference in the lives of everyone we work with. PPI is succeeding and creating positive change among our players and coaches because of the talent and passion of the entire PPI staff, especially our local coaches, for change and for a better future."

Samer Alayan, BasketPal Coach, West Bank

Not all of the PeacePlayers programs mix Isareli and Palestinian kids.

Enter Samer Alayan, Ghassan's cousin. Not only does Samer now coach three teams for PeacePlayers, a girls' team and two boys' teams, in Beit Sefafa, he also now heads up a new program for PeacePlayers: BasketPal.

The idea behind the program is to strengthen the basketball infrastructure in Palestine. As a Palestinian, he often was embarrassed when playing against Israelis. The lack of formal coaching and facilities often left the Arab teams underprepared. Out of addressing that concern, as well as the difficulty of Palestinian teams traveling to Israel, BasketPal was born.

The program started with seven teams in Tul Karem and two in Jericho, and is expanding to Ramallah and possibly Bethlehem this year. The goal is to spread the program throughout the entire West Bank.

The main obstacle is the lack of facilities. Touring the West Bank with Samer, one sees a similar picture from town to town: plenty of kids wanting to play basketball, but broken-down courts often without backboards or rims.

While international donors often are eager to support programs that promote coexistence, PeacePlayers struggles to get the funds for single-identity work from anyone but local donors.

"We talk about how the kids will respect each other when they play together," Samer says. "But the truth is that they'll respect each other if they know how to play. If the kids can't play, the respect won't come. In fact, the stereotype that Arabs are worthless just increases."

Samer has been beating the bushes looking for support, and he's found a lot of it from a local Palestinian company: Hadara Technologies, the Internet service provider arm of PalTel, which provides broadband services to the 7 percent of Palestinian households that have access to the Web.

"For many Palestians, the Internet is the only way to reach the outside world," says Huda Eljack, Hadara's CEO. "They are so trapped, it's difficult for them to get access to new ideas or even entertainment."

Eljack herself is a Palestinian success story -- a Palestinian-American who moved back to the region at precisely the time that most educated Palestinians with any financial means were moving out.

"You can't have peace if people don't have jobs," she says, "so we've tried to create as many jobs in Palestine as we can the last few years."

Her support for the program is enthusiastic. "They aren't just creating basketball players," she says. "They are building life skills and gaining role models.

"Programs like this teach kids to deal with each each and connect them in important ways. Finding the right role models in Palestine, with all of the religious and political strife in the region, is very difficult. To have the coaches develop relationships with the kids may be the most important piece of this."

The creation of a vibrant local staff has been at the core of the success of the PeacePlayers program. The kids' role models aren't American or Canadian -- they are Palestinian and Israeli.

The BasketPal program itself already has produced its first star, a 13-year-old Christian girl from Jericho named Natalie. Natalie might be the best player in the PeacePlayers program, boy or girl, regardless of age, religion or nationality.

She already is playing for the senior Palestinian national soccer team. Basketball is a newer sport for her, one she picked up going to a dusty court next to the soccer field and playing with boys.

"I've always played with boys," Natalie says. "I love to play sports. I play all day every day. That's what I do."

During a game in late August, she got to the basket at will, showed an excellent jump shot and played very unselfishly for someone leaps and bounds better than anyone else on the floor. After just a year in PeacePlayers, her development has been extraordinary.

She, too, made the trip to the United States, and she was named a first-team All-Star at the AU tournament in Greensboro. Even more impressive was that she moved up to play with 15- and 16-year-olds. Upon her return, she was named to the women's team in Palestine to play alongside women 18 years and older.

Her goal is to make it to the United States and play high school basketball, with an eye toward playing Division I college basketball. She has the potential to do it, and thanks to BasketPal, she might have the chance.

Karen Doubliet, PeacePlayers Middle East Managing Director

When PeacePlayers lost Matt Minoff, the American ballplayer who served as the leading advocate in the region, to a job in New York, the organization turned to a fearless Israeli-Canadian.

Karen Doubliet is one of the few Israelis who can say she actually has spent time on the other side of the wall -- in Tul Karem, Ramallah and Bethlehem -- in any capacity other than as a solider. Now Doubliet, with a strong academic background in conflict resolution, is taking PeacePlayers to new places as well. She has been working furiously as PeacePlayers expands its programs and adds new curriculum to provide better leadership and coexistence training to both the program directors and the coaches.

Doubliet grew up in a liberal Jewish household in Toronto. She was a psychology student, and, in 1997, traveled abroad to Tel Aviv University, where courses in Jewish history and Middle East conflict changed her life.

"I had a spiritual experience in Israel," she remembers. "My grandmother had just died. She was a Holocaust survivor. It had a profound impact on me. I was interested in social psychology and blind obedience. How do ordinary men do extraordinarily evil things? And why did so many people stand by and let it happen?"

Doubliet returned to Canada after the year studying abroad, determined to live in Israel someday. She spent the next few years traveling the world, exposing herself to the great adversity many people face in the world today. The resilience of the people she met inspired her, and she decided to permanently return to Israel in 2003, just as the Iraq War began.

"It was really a scary time in Israel," she says. "I remember I went from the airport straight to get a gas mask at the mall."

Doubliet's primary research as an undergrad focused on the psychology of the Holocaust, but her decision to return to Israel signaled a change of course.

"I felt I was spending too much time on history when there was a real live conflict in front of my eyes," she says. "I felt a responsibility to contribute to something I can change. It was the beginning of new path for me."

She enrolled in Bar-Ilan University to study conflict management and negotiation.

"Bar-Ilan is a religious university, and I wasn't particularly religious," she says. "But I wanted to see the religious perspective of the conflict. I felt that, in order to totally understand the conflict, you need to understand the narratives of all sides: right and left, religious, and secular. You need to understand the perspectives of your friends and your foes. The program was professional and neutral, but the life experiences of the faculty and students gave me a deeper insight into a new way of thinking about the conflict."

Now, four years later, Doubliet has finished her coursework and is writing her dissertation, assessing the impact of intergroup encounters -- such as PeacePlayers programs -- on the attitudes and behaviors of Palestinian and Israeli youth.

Since November, she has been PeacePlayers' point person in Israel, overseeing the program, fundraising, working on curriculum development, balancing the budget and managing the staff.

With Doubliet in charge, PeacePlayers has begun to assess what is working and what is not. Her main focus has been on improving the youth curriculum and training the program directors and local staff to create both better coaches and better facilitators of intergroup relations.

As someone who has spent the past four years studying programs like this, she is more qualified than most to assess whether they really work.

"I think we have to put it into perspective," Doubliet says. "People aren't aware of the context we're working in. It is working. But it all depends on how you define success. Outsiders look at the program without a real awareness of the complexities of the conflict, the challenges that we face and the energy it takes to keep going within this context. Sometimes, these challenges are seemingly insurmountable, and it takes a lot of energy and faith to keep going.

"When we consider the seemingly impossible context that we are working in, it becomes clear how much the program really is working. It is a miracle that we are even bringing Palestinian and Israeli youth together under these circumstances, and creating a forum where coaches from both sides can work together, creating a joint future. There is no doubt that the program has a significant impact on the lives of the children with whom we work -- many of whom would be playing on the street and getting into trouble if it weren't for the program and the positive role models.

"The fact that people like Ghassan are still committed to the project, despite the conditions he lives under and his recognition of the limitations, speaks volumes in and of itself. Even in the case of Pini, we must consider his background, and that his schema of Arabs [before the program] was solely transmitted through his family, peers and media. Optimally, we aim for children to remain in the program on a long-term basis, like Khaled. However, the program was able to impact Pini's life for one year. This is a boy who otherwise would never have been exposed to Arabs. We gave him a chance to see another side. If he went away from the program at least knowing that not all Arabs are bad, then we were successful.

"This is a necessary part of the process. Bottom-up peace-building is a gradual process; it's about changing attitudes and opening people's minds to other possibilities. These kids won't create the political agreements that need to be made. But it open minds and prepares them for the peace when it comes. If we impact even a few kids, it may not make peace in and of itself; it's another drop in the bucket. Eventually, we'll have a full bucket."

So what will the PeacePlayers program look like in five years?

"I believe that the program will continue to grow, and that we will expand our reach into many more communities," Doubliet says. "We have integrated teams in the national leagues, with Palestinians and Israelis playing together under the banner of PeacePlayers. The participants of today -- like coach Khaled and his peers -- will be leading the program."

Looking Forward

It's been six years since PeacePlayers co-founders Brendan and Sean Tuohey asked, "What if?"

Now, with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the program serves thousands of young people in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and the Middle East. Starting in September, PeacePlayers will expand to New Orleans.

The success has not gone unnoticed. Adidas's corporate foundation, the Adi Dassler Fund, recently awarded PeacePlayers a significant grant that will support PeacePlayers' programs in the Middle East and New Orleans.

In July, at the ESPY Awards, two PeacePlayers coaches from Northern Ireland received the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award in recognition of their work bridging divides and developing friendships among thousands of Protestant and Catholic youth.

Former President Bill Clinton mentioned PeacePlayers in his newest book, "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World," as a program that can foster communication, cooperation and leadership in the Middle East and around the globe.

The plan is to continue growing, adding a community a year as PeacePlayers receives more financial support.

Ghassan's father said people only talk peace, they never do. For some, peace is found in a John Lennon song or a candlelight vigil on Christmas Eve.

But for people like R.C., Khaled, Yoav, Ghassan, Samer, Huda, Natalie, Brian, Bar, Serene, Osnat, Karen, Brendan and Sean, peace is a living, breathing work in progress.

Chad Ford covers the NBA and the NBA draft for ESPN.com, is the director of the David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding and is an assistant professor of conflict resolution at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. E-mail him at chad.m.ford@espn3.com.