Jennifer Marouf from Ramallah and Yaron Konigsberg from Jerusalem train for kayaking in the Golan.What do a 22-year-old Israeli from Jerusalem and a 23-year-old Palestinian from Ramallah have in common? They’re both athletes and they’ve decided to utilize their talents to help break down barriers between their two peoples.

Jennifer Marouf from Ramallah and Yaron Konigsberg from Jerusalem are members of the four-person ‘Team Middle East’ which is currently training for an outdoor endurance challenge that is being held next month in the name of friendship and peace in East Timor.

The more than 25 teams from around at the world who will be competing in the Timor Challenge will be required to run, mountain bike and paddle in order to complete the challenge. The Challenge which begins on May 14 will culminate in the capital city of Dili on May 20th in conjunction with a series of festivities that are being planned to help celebrate the second anniversary of the newest nation in the world.

Mark Squirrell and Marc Regnault De La Mothe – both employees of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) – complete the foursome that will represent the Middle East.

“We want to show people in conflict areas that – coming from this region which is also a conflict area – we’re actually an example that people can get along,” Konigsberg told ISRAEL21c.

According to the official website of the Timor Challenge, the aims of the Gathering are:

** To promote peace, development, youth opportunities and regional friendship through the interaction of local and global participants.

** To promote connections, confidence and opportunities in Timor-Leste.

Konigsberg, who was born in London but moved to Israel as a young boy, recently completed his army service in the paratroopers and is working as a chef in a Jerusalem café. But every spare moment, he’s outside either biking, running, or rock climbing which is how he met Squirrell.

“I met Mark a year ago when I was rock climbing, and like me, he also enjoys biking and running, so we had a lot in common and began doing things together. About half a year ago, he proposed competing in the Timor Challenge, and I was immediately interested,” said Konigsberg.

Squirrel, a 32 year old Australian, had spent time in East Timor working with American NGO the International Rescue Committee before coming to the Mideast to work with the UN, explained that the seeds of Team Middle East sprouted from his time in East Timor.

“I’m still good friends with an IRC coordinator in East Timor and when he told what he was trying to achieve with the Timor Challenge, I decided to assist him, and at the same time try to put something together that could help the situation here between Israelis and Palestinians,” Squirrell told ISRAEL21c. “We hope to provide an example of solidarity to those caught up in conflicts throughout the world.”

According to Squirrell, there have been many logistical obstacles to overcome in organizing the team, from finding a Palestinian candidate to receiving permission for that candidate to train with the team.

“I had quite a lot of difficulty locating a suitable Palestinian for team. I had to find someone who could travel into Israel proper and had a sporting background as well. When I finally bumped into Jennifer, she was perfect,” Squirrell said.

Marouf, who works for a Palestinian NGO in Ramallah, trains extensively in aerobics. In her fluent English spoken with an American accent, thanks to her American-born mother – she enthusiastically explained how Squirrell approached her.

“Mark had gone to Ramallah to a gym and asked an aerobic instructor there if she was interested in joining the team. She told them she didn’t have the time, but said ‘I know the perfect person.’ So Mark gave me a call, and met me in the gym,” Marouf said. “I was thinking, ‘Life is so routine – I go to work, go to the gym, see friends at night, but nothing extra is going on. This was an opportunity, something I could get excited about.”

The travel restrictions that prevented Marouf from entering Israel to train with the team were lifted a few weeks ago thanks to the involvement of the Peres Center for Peace, which is providing assistance and advice to the team.

“We’ve trained with kayaking in the Golan Heights, and last weekend, we were biking in the Jerusalem hills,” said Squirrell.

Both Konigsberg and Marouf express delight at meeting each other and being able to work out together.

“There’s been no tension training with Jennifer,” said Konigsberg. “We all get along, and she’s very easy to talk to. When I met her I realized she was really open-minded and friendly.”

“Yaron’s great,” said Marouf. “There was pressure from family and friends not to participate because of an Israeli being involved, but I think it’s important.”

The team is confident it will do well in the Timor Challenge, but they stress that winning is not their primary goal. According to Squirrell, more important are the promoting the concept of friendship between Israelis and Palestinians and expressing the importance of sports to youth.

“This whole adventure is pushing me beyond my limits – in a good sporting way,” said Marouf. “I feel like I’m training with professionals. I have no experience in kayaking, and a couple weeks ago when Yaron and I trained together, it was tough for me. The first 15 minutes were OK, but then – whoa! If you’re going along the stream, then you’re going with the flow and it’s not bad, but otherwise – it’s like ‘hey, are we moving at all!'”

But no matter how difficult the current, Team Middle East is determined to move forward and to paddle against the stream if necessary, to bring their message of teamwork to the people of East Timor and to their own communities.