A World Cup in Tel Aviv

Palestinian and African refugee teams join cosmopolitan mix of immigrants.

A social enterprise that aims to create a community for young English-speakers in Tel Aviv without isolating them from Israel's other linguistic groups put an international twist on its most recent event: Last Friday, the group organized a soccer tournament in Ramat Aviv that saw four English-speaking teams - representing England, Scotland, Wales and North America - playing against other recent immigrants from France, Italy, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

"The idea is really to get immigrants to play with people who might be outside their bubble, their comfort zone, to see what else is out there," said Kevin Nafte, the co-founder of Telalivit, a group that has been providing cultural and educational events for an online community of 4,000 people since last year. "Otherwise, I think it's very easy to live in Tel Aviv and remain within your little bubbles of English-speakers, Americans or Brits.

Ivory Coast, Brazil
Nir Keidar

Nafte, a native of South Africa, is intimately familiar with the challenges of the English-speaking immigrant experience. After spending his teen years in Australia, he arrived in Israel in his twenties on a Birthright trip. After volunteering in the army and on a kibbutz, going back to his old life in Australia just didn't feel right. So he returned to Israel to start a new chapter in his life.

Now Telalivit, the group that he co-founded, is helping others do likewise.

But this soccer tournament wasn't only for Jewish immigrants to Israel; Nafte made it a point to invite West Bank Palestinians and African refugees to get in on the game as well. The move made sense to Nafte, who completed a master's degree in conflict resolution, but it initially aroused some skepticism among the tournament's other participants.

"I think there was a bit of reservation from a few people before this tournament started, when they found out that there were Palestinian and refugee teams - this idea of being an 'immigrant World Cup,'" said Nafte. "Some were a bit uncomfortable with that matter."

But Nafte pressed on, knowing from personal experience that Israelis and Palestinians are perfectly capable of getting along with one another on the soccer pitch, if less so in other areas.

"I do a lot of projects with Palestinians as well," he explained. "I'm a coach of an Australian-rules football team that's half Israeli, half-Palestinian, that we’re taking to Australia to play in the World Cup soon, together with the Peres Peace Center. So for me, it’s natural, I enjoy it. I go over to the West Bank every now and then; it’s my way of helping the [political] situation here.”

Nafte believes that citizen diplomacy can create new opportunities to break down boundaries between peoples at times when the usual political channels bear no fruit.

“Sometimes it gets a bit frustrating with the news and all the media,” he said. “But when I’m there on the ground, at events like this, and seeing Palestinians here playing sports with Israelis, and everything’s great, and everyone’s just focusing on the sports − that’s how it should be.”

The tournament’s Palestinian players come from Samoa, a village of about 24,000 people situated south of Hebron, and the team’s coach plays for Shabab Al-Khaleel, the soccer team that represents Hebron in the West Bank Premier League.

“It’s a good thing for a Palestinian team to be here, for people to know who the Palestinians are,” said Muhammad Zareer. “It would be good if one of these teams came to our village to play. It would be a good match. The people in our village love soccer, they love sports, so they’d come to watch.”

The Palestinians had to acquire special travel permits to be able to attend the tournament in Israel. Since it involved so much logistical effort, they decided to make the most of their trip to Tel Aviv by stopping off at the beach on their way home.

“After the championship game, we will go to the sea, because there are some players on our team that have never been to the sea,” Zareer said. “To see the sea!” he exclaimed, tickled that he had made a pun in English.

The refugee team represented Ivory Coast, where most of its players hail from, but it also included other Africans. Alya Kamara, for instance, used to play professional soccer in his home country of Guinea.

Kamara came to Israel a year ago, but hasn’t been able to play soccer for most of that time because of an injury that sidelined him for the last seven months. Now he’s on the mend, and was happy to be invited to play in the tournament.

“It’s great because there are many people, many nations, but it’s like one language,” Kamara said. “We’re happy, we enjoy it. We just came to have fun, to play, and we hope to get the cup.”

By the final round of the tournament, it seemed that Kamara’s hopes − and Nafte’s − had been realized. Ivory Coast had advanced to the playoffs, while Jewish Israelis, clearly enjoying themselves, loudly cheered them on from the sidelines: “Africa! Africa!”