Soccer Team Was Lone Bright Spot in West Bank Village. Virus Took That, Too.
WADI AL-NIS, West Bank – The stands were mostly empty, the coach was nowhere to be found and the players were dejected as they suffered another unbalanced defeat.
A sense of sadness hung over the soccer field on the outskirts of Jerusalem as soccer team Taraji Wadi al-Nis played the penultimate match of their worst season in decades.
The visible frustration of the players in their crisp blue and white uniforms had a lot to do with the fact that their legendary semi-professional football club – the pride of a small pastoral village of just 1,400 inhabitants, almost all from the same family enlarged – would be demoted next season to the shame of the Second Division.
For residents of Wadi al-Nis in the occupied West Bank, the team’s disappointing season has been yet another – but particularly biting – example of how the coronavirus has exacerbated the already dire circumstances in the village, where many people suffer from poverty and irregular employment.
Since the pandemic first appeared in the village last year, low-income families have reduced their meat consumption, laborers working in Israel and neighboring Israeli settlements have sometimes been unable to reach their level. work, and some of those with Covid-19 have racked up hefty medical bills.
“The coronavirus has been devastating for our city,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, 46, a member of the local council and chairman of the football team, as he overlooked the rocky landscape of the village. “It has changed all of our lives, from builders and farmers to players. “
Despite the difficult life of many in Wadi al-Nis even before the pandemic, one bright spot that had long distinguished him from villages in similar difficulty in the occupied territories was the disproportionate success of his football team, traditionally a West Bank powerhouse. .
But the coronavirus took that, too.
The financial crisis caused by the virus has reduced the sponsorship of many Palestinian clubs, according to Susan Shalabi, senior official of the Palestine Football Association. For the Wadi al-Nis team, whose small fan base meant money was always tight, the loss of around $ 200,000 in government and private sector sponsorships was ruinous.
Instead of training on leased land in nearby towns, players now often train by running for hours on end along dirt roads next to vineyards and olive groves.
While the team’s struggles have depressed the morale of almost everyone in the village, its poorest residents have concerns that extend far beyond losses on the pitch.
Widow Haijar Abu Hamad, 64, generally relies on family and friends to help pay for basic expenses like food, water and electricity bills, but few have been able to continue to support her as a result of the virus.
“Some days I only eat a piece of bread for dinner,” she said, doing little to hide her distress. “It’s a terrible feeling: you open the refrigerator and there is hardly anything there.”
Ms. Abu Hamad – almost everyone’s last name in the village is Abu Hamad – has two children and four grandchildren who were born with hearing disabilities. She said the family couldn’t afford to fix one of her grandchildren’s hearing aids.
While football has been the city’s main entertainment option, its main economic driver has been employment in Israel or in neighboring settlements.
In the first weeks of the outbreak, however, Palestinian workers faced additional restrictions on entering Israel. People over 50 were generally not allowed entry at all, while some workers in the settlements were unable to reach their jobs.
“It was a devastating time,” said Ghaleb Abu Hamad, 39, who works as a tractor driver in a nearby settlement and has been a long-time supporter of the village football team. “Unlike the Israelis who got unemployment funds, we were on our own. “
However, the employment situation has improved a little. Villagers who work in Israel and neighboring settlements said they had recently been able to go to work regularly, in part because they had received vaccines from Israel.
The name Wadi al-Nis, which means Porcupine Valley, is associated with the success of football in the West Bank. For most of its existence, the team, established in 1984, played in the territory’s most prestigious league and won the Premier League championship in 2009 and 2014, according to Ghassan Jaradat, media manager of Palestine Football. Association.
But besides its history of triumphs in football, there is another way that Wadi al-Nis contrasts with many other villages in the West Bank: it has developed close ties with neighboring settlements.
Many residents work in the settlements in construction, factory, farming and sanitation jobs. They often share holiday meals with their Jewish neighbors.
“We deal with our neighbors with manners, respect and morals,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, the village council member. “We have a good relationship with them.
Oded Revvi, 52, the mayor of the neighboring settlement of Efrat, agreed the two communities were close, calling the cooperation “endless”, whether returning a lost dog or working together . The Efrat emergency medical center is used by residents of Wadi al-Nis, he said.
But like many other villages in the West Bank, Wadi al-Nis’ political future is tied to one of the most intractable struggles in the Middle East. And it lacks basic infrastructure such as properly paved roads, public parks, sewers, and bright street lighting. Public transport rarely runs during the day; there is only one store in the center of town.
For years, local leaders have tried to convince the Palestinian Authority and international donors to invest in the region’s development, but they have made little progress.
The Wadi al-Nis Charitable Society, which provides services to the village, said it had historically encountered obstacles in raising funds but the virus had held it back even more.
“We have hardly achieved anything this year,” said Walid Abu Hamad, 46, the director of the company. “The virus has plunged us into our deepest crisis of all time. “
The organization’s kindergarten struggled to purchase essential school supplies like pens and paper. Its financial aid to the poor has been cut. Long-standing plans for an upscale community center seem more distant than ever.
When it comes to football, however, the villagers are optimistic that the club will one day recover.
Ahmad Abu Hamad, 33, a veteran defender, has vowed the team will rebound in the years to come. But he admitted that the team’s failure last season made the miseries of a terrible time in his hometown worse.
“We were called the king of championships. We won cup after cup and we celebrated them downtown like we do at weddings, ”he said as he sat down next to four of his family who also play for the club. “Now the streets are empty and quiet and the feeling of hopelessness is palpable. “
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