First Flight – The Gaza Sunbirds Cycling Team
How do you form a racing team within the confines of the tiny enclave of the Gaza Strip, with few bikes, little equipment and no travel permits? Journalist and filmmaker Flavia Cappellini meets the Sunbirds, determined to represent Palestine on the international stage
December 30, 2021, was supposed to be a big day for Alaa al Dali. He woke up at six in the morning, buzzing with excitement. Being a night owl by nature, he would normally do the first prayer of the day then go back to sleep for a couple more hours. That day, however, he rushed down three flights of stairs through his family house to reach their cement forecourt. The space is occupied by piles of peppers, a bitcoin station his older brother runs whenever there is enough electricity and a bike storage unit.
The 24-year-old had four road bikes waiting for him there, including a 2017 WorldTour Bahrain Merida team one, somehow smuggled into Gaza. His DS was bringing along another two. Six bikes in total would have to be enough for the long-planned first training session of the eight aspiring riders of the new Gaza Sunbirds Paracycling Team. The plan was that they would take it in turns while Alaa and the coach taught them how to ride.
They invited a Rouleur freelance photographer to document that special moment. However, upon their arrival at the meeting point, the security police showed up and forced them to cancel the photo-shoot, detaining four of them for further investigation. There is a foreign media involved, they said, you need our approval first. Just like that, their first training session was cancelled.
Gazans live in a constant state of paranoia: bombs might fall at any time and legends of infiltrated spies are rife in bars and restaurants. Perhaps that’s why locals who have strong contacts with foreigners are treated with suspicion. Or maybe it is just too strange that someone could seriously think of setting up a professional endurance sport team in Gaza, a 40-kilometre long, flat strip of land at the heart of a renowned Middle East conflict zone.
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was followed by twists, turns and diplomatic failures that have resulted in near-constant conflict ever since and the current fragmented, restricted existence of Palestine. Palestinians find themselves geographically divided between the West Bank – under military occupation – and Gaza, isolated by a blockade imposed since 2007. This is a brief summary of a complex and contested issue, but suffice to say, the situation is very tense.
After the Giro d’Italia started in Israel in 2018, I went to Gaza to meet with Alaa al Dali and have returned whenever I could, working on a documentary about his story and, now, the Gaza Sunbirds. I remember a day I spent with my colleague, Issam A. Adwan, who had recently become the Gaza Sunbirds local coordinator, when we were also detained while shooting in a sensitive area. To explain ourselves, we showed a cycling cap and some cycling magazines I had brought as presents for Alaa. The policemen knew who he was and thought the casquette looked best turned backwards when they tried it on. But we still weren’t spared half a day of interrogations and a few more jokes about Lycra bib shorts before they let us go.
Alaa lives in Rafah, specifically in the biggest refugee settlement in Gaza. His neighbourhood is packed with three-storey high houses of bare concrete. The wide roads criss-crossing this southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip are usually clogged with traffic, mostly cars but sometimes also the husks of vehicles piled up on horse-drawn carts. In contrast, Gaza City’s narrower streets are full of lights and shops, leading you to the historic centre of what used to be a flourishing Mediterranean port.
It could take the best part of a day to drive the 33 kilometres of Gaza’s longest road. You have to factor in umpteen stops. Streets have no names and houses have no numbers, so the postal service is a communitarian affair. Alaa usually delivers peppers, his family donating them to people all around. Everyone is happily entangled with acquaintances as there are hardly any strangers in the strip, with nearly two million people squashed into a walled territory barely bigger than Dublin. At each stop, something unexpected happens: a coffee break, a tour around the only music store in Gaza, or pitching in to help someone’s uncle rebuild his home. Any detour comes with a striking ability to laugh at their circumstances, like chatting about how car suspensions don’t work as well as they used to for driving over bomb craters. By lunchtime, you need to come to terms with the fact that your day has gone in a completely different direction to what was planned. Confirmation comes when people start saying “insha’Allah, we’ll get there soon”. Alaa is a master of insha’Allahs.
Neither he nor any of his friends have ever had the chance to leave the Gaza Strip, but their curiosity for the outside world never goes away. Cycling is their passion but it is also a possible ticket abroad to places where they can actually climb and descend a hill. But the Egyptian border has been often closed since 2013 and the Israeli blockade has been firmly in place since 2007. Although Alaa won local road races and qualified for competitions in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, he had to give them all up because he could not travel. Nevertheless, his reputation was spreading and he was invited to compete at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
March 30, 2018, was also the start of the Great March of Return, where the Gazan population would gather in their thousands at the edges of their territory for a weekly protest at the fenced border guarded by the Israeli army. The headline demands were for the right to live fairly and to return to lands outside Gaza that their families had left as refugees since 1948. That day, Alaa went along with the local cycling club and his bike, wearing his kit and demanding the possibility to compete as an international athlete and represent Palestine abroad. He was shot by a sniper, and subsequently lost his right leg. According to a United Nations report, Alaa was watching the demonstration peacefully, 300 metres away from the fence, when it happened.
“When I lost my leg, I lost myself,” Alaa told me back then. “That leg represented my ambitions and my dreams.”
He tried to keep up with his former team-mates, but he always ended up being dropped in the first kilometres of their training rides. Eventually, he stopped joining them. Being a cyclist and a bike racer was his identity, that team his pack of best friends. Now, he was alone, the only para-cyclist in Gaza. The only way back, he thought, was to become a living advertisement of his new sport: “No one could imagine riding a bike with prosthetics, or even with only one leg. So I started riding and spreading the sport very strongly. No team was going to fall from the sky: I had to do the publicity, talk to people and make my story heard to get the help that I needed.”
The March of Return protest lasted for more than a year, leaving one Israeli soldier and 241 civilians in Gaza dead, along with 156 amputees including Alaa’s neighbour, Haitham Nasir. They happened to be in the same rehabilitation session.
“I think Alaa and I had the implicit understanding that there was no point commiserating over it,” says Haitham. “It was sort of a nonchalant acknowledgement of the facts. ‘Oh, you lost it, too?’ It did put things into perspective, though.”
The rehabilitation process lasted for months, so the pair and some other recent amputees became, in the words of Alaa, “brothers in the face of adversity”. The talented sportsman had more of an aura around him. “They would always struggle walking with their crutches so when they saw me zooming around on my bike with one leg, they wanted the chance to do the same thing,” he says.
That is when the concept of the team was laid down. They decided they would ride under the image of the Sunbird, an official symbol of Palestine. And they promised each other they would learn to fly on bikes.Alaa was pleased that a Palestinian abroad would want to help him to build a team, yet fearful of disappointment. “I couldn’t put my faith in something the same way I used to,” he says. “To pour my whole life and soul into it with the risk that it wasn’t going to work out. It would have shattered me.”
He knows that feeling all too well after so many unfulfilled promises: of travel, competition at the Para-Asian Games, new prosthetics. Moreover, in 2019, a year after his amputation, Alaa was chosen to present the trophies at a prestigious new road race supported by the United Nations Development Programme and Japan. It was meant to be the first time athletes from the West Bank would make it to Gaza for a Palestinian cycling championship. The organisers intended to push the UCI to recognise Palestine by finally crowning a national champion after years of separate competitions between rivals who could never meet.
Israeli security gave approval for the West Bank competitors to travel through their Eretz border crossing into Gaza, but without their bikes, due to concerns their frames could be repurposed as weapon parts. No matter; the Gazans tried to adapt. The enthusiasm was palpable as I spent days following members of the cycling federation hunting through cycling dealerships for any spare bikes that might have made it in, despite the blockade, so that the West Bank racers could use them. We were on an absurd tour of Gaza’s black market, sifting through worn tyres and smuggled parts. With the little equipment found, a meeting of the Palestinian Olympic Committee in Gaza was called to plan a complicated system of sharing bikes and adjusting saddles between each race. We’ll never know whether it would have worked: at the last moment, the West Bank racers were denied permission to travel, without any formal explanation.
With this in mind, it is understandable that Alaa was cautious about the opportunity coming from London. In contrast, the project was generating great enthusiasm over there: Karim had involved sport agency student, Sami Galy, digital marketer and web designer, Ramzi Dalloul and later on, social media expert, Ahmed Bushnaq.
There was some friction when the teams in Gaza and the UK started working in tandem. Alaa’s caution meant he was reluctant to organise a meeting between the Palestinians abroad and the potential para-cyclists in Gaza, much to the frustration of those on the outside, close to securing sponsorships but needing evidence for their final pitch.
In Rafah, local coordinator, Issam, had taken on the burden of helping these two starkly different worlds to communicate. He lives close to Alaa and, as a journalist, he has been following this story longer than anyone else.
“Palestinians from the diaspora grew up with different perceptions and beliefs, they don’t really understand how we think sometimes,” he says. “I have to bridge the gap of this understanding of different cultures to get the results everybody is hoping for, in a context where everything in Gaza is a dilemma. Anything that you possibly think normal is actually not.”
Issam said he would do it because Alaa’s dream of establishing a team lit up his own passion. “I have learned a lot of things about him, but also about myself: how strong I should be, how resilient I should be. He has been through a lot and if he sometimes feels lazy in the morning… I think we can tolerate that. So yes, his story matters but don’t forget, this story is one out of millions of other stories of humans in Gaza.”
It is January, 2022, and the Gaza Sunbirds team has just managed to clear things up with the local authorities about the photo-shoot. But now, there is a bigger problem. An overnight escalation in violence broke the fragile ceasefire between Israeli and Hamas forces. Bombs fell near Rafah and those in charge of granting media permission are not returning Issam’s calls. “Maybe they have been evacuated,” says Issam. For the sake of safety, I suggest the training photos should happen elsewhere, perhaps 30 minutes away, near Gaza City. Yet that was out of the question. For such a tiny place, the sense of belonging is strong in Gaza: having the first team pictures taken somewhere other than Rafah would have felt like asking Everton football club to organise a press conference at Anfield.
The past few months have been tense. In May 2021, Gaza’s Hamas government – labelled as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the EU and the USA – attacked Israel in response to an Israeli court’s judgement evicting Palestinian families in occupied East Jerusalem. The 11-day military confrontation left 269 people dead: 256 Palestinians and 13 Israeli. As the bombs fell, Alaa al Dali was sheltering at home, with a newborn baby in his arms and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Apart from the horrific human situation he and his wife found themselves in, this flare-up disrupted the progress of his team. They had secured a start-up sponsorship deal from two international NGOs, PACES and Amos Trust. But it was not the right time to talk about para-cycling, not while 70,000 Gazans were being displaced. The project was put on hold. Alaa cherishes the messages of solidarity he got from the Gaza Sunbirds in the UK during that difficult time. “Karim was sending me videos from the UK, organising events, giving speeches about my story in front of people,” says Alaa. “And seeing their support for us and what we are trying to do, that made me so happy I cannot describe. I started feeling like people had my back.”
When normality returned, the Gaza Sunbirds still had to find an international partner that is registered locally in Gaza, a particularly rare species of organisation as it needs to pass stringent financial checks that come with the blockade. With the backing of ACS, an Italian NGO in Gaza, another six months of bureaucracy were endured to make a bank transfer.
“The most difficult thing was when we were waiting to get the money into Gaza. I felt like things wouldn’t work out,” says Alaa. “I had pretty much given up hope. Thank God, all these things end up feeling like a blip in the bigger story. If I can get these guys out of their isolation, to regain their independence on a bike: if all this can happen in Gaza, it would be extraordinary.”
At the beginning of December 2021, nearly four years after Alaa’s injury, Gaza Sunbirds started their training at a local gym in Rafah. Alaa asked Abu Ali, his former DS and local member of the cycling Olympic Committee, to formally become their coach. Ali had supported Alaa’s conversion to para-cycling when he had nobody in Gaza to ask. He went out riding with Alaa with his right leg tied up so he could mimic how the dynamic between the body and the bike changes after an amputation. They both hope building a team with international support can facilitate contacts with the outside world and help them receive advice on how to succeed in professional para-cycling. More than half of their targeted budget of $50,000 is to be spent on training costs, food for the athletes and a salary for Ali. The rest is for buying bikes and things like training shoes, given some of the team showed up at the first gym session in flip-flops.
Alaa’s legacy is already palpable. Since he started his solo riding, more people have become interested in cycling and another amateur para-cyling club is forming on the other side of the strip. In December 2020, a small first race was organised: Alaa had just left self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, but he still won. They repeated the event in 2021: this time, he could not participate due to a fall from a horse during a night ride. With all this new buzz, Alaa believes the Palestinian Paralympic Committee should set a clear path to qualification for Paris 2024. A path that is far from clear at the time of writing.
After that fall, Alaa now prefers getting around by camel. On the evening of January 3, he grabbed its hump with one hand and dialled Karim’s number with the other to confirm: tomorrow, we will be ready to ride.
Ahmed al Shaer, a close friend of Alaa’s who is also a Great March of Return amputee, was waiting anxiously. He joined Alaa’s project out of curiosity but now was scared to remove his prosthetic leg. “Looking back,” says Ahmed, “maybe it was a mistake as I lost my prosthetic while pedalling! But the freedom I have felt, I haven’t had that for a long time. It was better than I expected, definitely worth the wait.”
While speaking on the phone with Ahmed, Alaa interrupted with an ecstatic shout: “Flavia! No problems, no problems at all today!” I had goosebumps; I have never heard such an enthusiastic tone in his voice. The first time I interviewed Alaa was more than three years ago. Back then, he spoke in defiance of the injustice he had lived through, swearing to become a symbol of resilience. It seemed the mask of rage had been removed and he is finally enjoying the journey. “I am very grateful, regardless of whether this team ends up happening,” he says. “Hopefully soon, this team will grow in strength and ability, to get out of Gaza and represent Palestine.”
KARIM ALI: VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE
January 2020. I was having a pint in London with Karim Ali, the current international coordinator for the Gaza Sunbirds. Ali is a scientist and community activist living in London, born in Jordan to a Palestinian refugee father and mother. He is part of their diaspora, unable to visit, but always looking to Palestine for his identity. He wanted to meet Alaa and knew other Palestinians, who, like him, were interested in helping to establish a professional paracycling team in Gaza. While the riders joined the team to have a chance to travel abroad, he got involved in the hope of finding some sort of reconnection with Palestine.
Ali stresses that Gaza Sunbirds is not a political project: “We are working with riders who, because of circumstances, were born in a place that made life very difficult for them. There’s nothing supposed to be inherently political about this, we are really trying to give back what was taken from them when they initially had their amputations.”
Gaza is intrinsically linked with images of war and terrorism. Cycling’s business model relies on sponsorships and private investments to thrive and not many brands would make the decision to be associated with such a highly-contested place lightly. Ali, however, thinks this is a secondary problem. “The difficulty is just having someone believing that something on the ground in Gaza is possible, and it’s something that I question every single day,” he says. “It has taken about a year to get the funding inside Gaza and to make sure that we meet all the security and transparency standards required. Our commitment to this team is not a short-term one and as the project gets momentum, I believe we are demonstrating this is possible.”
When Gaza was heavily bombarded in May 2021, he understood that it was going to take mental fortitude to keep working on the project, despite the circumstances. Accepting his own vulnerability and the fragility of the team members was a key step towards feeling at peace with the situation. “Whether we succeed or not, we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do. I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to help to do it, because I think beyond the team, we have so much to give to the world: our stories, our experiences, our take on reality."
The Big Ride for Palestine is launching a new fundraising campaign to support the Gaza Sunbirds and help send them to the Paralympics in 2024. If you would like to find out more, click here.
This article was originally published in Rouleur Issue 109. Support our independent journalism by subscribing here.