ragazzi di sebastia esultano durante torneo di calcio

The soccer kids of Sebastia

Giacomo Pizzi31 May 2024

“A few days ago, at a checkpoint, a soldier said to me, «Answer this question correctly and I’ll let you pass»”. Iyad, the colleague accompanying us to Sebastia, pauses for a moment, and his proud Bedouin gaze is lost in the dunes of the Judean desert.

His eyes watch as the dunes slowly transform into flowering hills, passing from rock-strewn wadis with patches of thin grass to green meadows, and then to the vast fields of olive trees, the gold of Palestine. We are on the road that climbs from Jericho to Samaria, passing through the Jordan Valley.

“He asked me,” Iyad continues, “‘What do you desire most at this moment?’ and without thinking, I replied: peace.”

The deliberately provocative question stunned the soldier, who then let him pass, and it also strikes us because it is true. Iyad could have launched into arguments and recriminations, he could have—and perhaps, according to many, should have—pointed fingers at those responsible and asserted his reasons; instead, he chose to respond with the sincerity of the heart, with the realism of someone who has lived in uncertainty and fear for months. Peace first, everything else follows.

Yet Iyad would have every right to do so, having been born in a refugee camp in Jordan to two Palestinian parents: his mother born and raised in Palestine, his father forced to leave his land during the Six-Day War in 1967. For years, Iyad grew up in the camp without knowing an important part of his family, and only at the age of 14 was he able to return to live in Jericho, near the place where his grandfather’s village once stood.

His life has never been easy, but in the past few months, it has gotten significantly worse: he tells us that in January, his father was shot in the arm while playing with his grandson in the garden, and just a few days ago, his brother’s house was demolished by bulldozers simply because someone decided overnight that the borders of Jericho needed to be moved. “Just to scare us,” he says. He is proud of everything that is part of his history, both personal and that of his land, and of the historical heritage of that land, a treasure that speaks of a common history. “It belongs to everyone,” he concludes, “not to the exclusive possession of someone.”

Samaria's flowering hills.
Samaria’s flowering hills.

The arrival in Sebastia

After about an hour, we finally arrive in Sebastia, the ancient Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom. A flourishing city of kings and prophets, it was made even more beautiful by Herod the Great, who changed its name to Sebastia in honor of the Roman emperor, the Sebastòs. Here, the body of the Baptist was buried, and the Crusaders made it a powerful fortress.

Today, it is a small town of 4,000 inhabitants, an island like many in the West Bank, surrounded and hemmed in by the settlements of the colonists on the hills around that expand ever more in a suffocating grip. It used to be an important destination for pilgrims, who flocked in large numbers to see and touch the only place where the burial of John the Baptist, along with Elisha and the other great prophets, is remembered, but over time, the deterioration of the situation has permanently erased Sebastia from the maps.

Before October 7, tourists arrived sporadically, now no one comes anymore. Not even the Arabs from Galilee, who used to come here to stroll among the green hills of Samaria and savor ancient traditional foods, come anymore. They don’t come because they fear the ambushes of the colonists on the roads, which are increasingly frequent and increasingly violent.

When we arrive, we are updated on the local situation: there are many stories of violence here too, stories of friends shot dead on the street while returning from the fields, hit by bullets coming from who knows where; “Even my cousin,” a young man tells us, “was injured while in the square with friends.” A senseless violence that oppresses everyone. Yet, alongside the sadness, the teary eyes from injustice, and the long silences between one story and another while the mind fills with “why?”, there are no recriminations, no violence in their words.

A Palestinian flag spread among flowers and blades of grass.
A Palestinian flag spread among flowers and blades of grass.

Sparks of Hope

And not just that: there is the hope of those who refuse to give up and want to continue fighting for the future. Through simple, everyday actions filled with incredible strength. “You should see,” Shady explains to us, “how the children’s eyes light up every time they participate in the soccer tournament!” Shady has been a colleague and friend for years, managing the Sebastia guesthouse built through the collaboration between Pro Terra Sancta and Mosaic Center Jericho. A few months ago, with no tourists and an empty guesthouse, in the midst of the violence, Shady decided to organize a soccer tournament in Sebastia, involving many children and teenagers from the town.

“It reminded me,” he explains, “of a phrase by Osama Hamdan who, knowing that I have a degree in physical education, often said to me, ‘Shady, you should create a soccer team to bring smiles back to these children.’ So I did: first, I created a team for very young children, then, since the initiative was so well-received and hundreds of registration requests came in, I decided to organize this tournament involving more teams.”

The tournament is dedicated to the memory of Osama, our dear friend and founder of the Mosaic Center in Jericho, who recently passed away from cancer. His memory permeates the lives of Shady, Iyad, and everyone in these places we visit. From him, we all learned so much, especially the love and care for our heritage and our land. “Hope,” the young people of Sebastia explain to us, “comes from this awareness of ourselves, which allows us to keep fighting for life even in the midst of this disaster, even when it is difficult.” This is why Pro Terra Sancta immediately chose to support the initiative.

In addition to dedicating himself wholeheartedly to training the teams and organizing the tournament, Shady is fixing up the guesthouse rooms. “Small maintenance interventions,” he explains as he shows us around, “so that when tourists return, they’ll be ready!”

His enthusiasm is disarming.

For lunch, we head up to Nisf Jubeil, a small village a bit further up the hillside. Here, too, the Mosaic Center and Pro Terra Sancta have started activities to create opportunities for sustainable tourism; here, too, there is a very clean guesthouse. This detail strikes us: “I keep it tidy,” explains Rami, who manages it, “because I hope that one day friends will return. This place has already given me so much, and I take care of it as if it were my home.”

Before returning to Sebastia to meet Shady, we visit the ceramics production center, where artisans continue to work and create magnificent plates, bowls, and cups. There are still some buyers, waiting for better times when people will return here.

Nisf Jubeil's ceramics.
Nisf Jubeil’s ceramics.

The Soccer Kids

Training takes place in a school: “We used to play,” Shady explains, “on a public field, but with the increasing violence, we preferred to move to an enclosed space where the children are safe.” It’s quite a spectacle: in itself, there’s nothing exceptional, just an ordinary training session on an asphalt field between two rusty metal goals, yet for these children, it’s something incredible. They are very committed, racing between the cones proudly, showing off their new jerseys with the logos of Pro Terra Sancta and the Mosaic Center as if they were the logos of Juve or Milan. Everyone here takes everything very seriously; no one is lazy or bored.

In the stands, a crowd of curious onlookers cheers for the Sebastia team, all children and teenagers who don’t miss a second of the game. Many of them, at first, don’t know how to behave with us: “Some of them,” we are told, “have never met a foreigner because we are a bit isolated.” We also take to the field for the match, which is a really important moment. Then it gets late, and we have to leave; the road is uncertain, and we need to return to Jerusalem.

The game is over, but Shady, Rami, and some of the children stay on the field a little longer. As we leave them behind, we feel like we’re leaving a special place, an island of hope and joy atop the hill, surrounded by a sea of violence and chaos. Just a few kilometers from here are Nablus and Jenin, where every day, violence begets more violence in an endless cycle of bloodshed. But today, here, we have seen a spark of hope shining on the hill of the ancient city of Samaria, called “the sentinel” over the centuries. Today, the sentinels are them, the soccer kids of Sebastia.

The soccer team.
The soccer team.