Some of the guests from Darfur at the Hapoel Katamon-Mevasseret – Maccabi Kiryat Malachi game last week at Teddy Stadium.Adam Bashar rose energetically to his feet to applaud the soccer players dressed in red and yellow uniforms trotting onto the pristine, green field below. The Friday morning match at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium between Hapoel Katamon-Mevasseret and Maccabi Kiryat Malachi was no ordinary game, though, and Bashar was no ordinary fan.
Bashar was one of 50 political refugees from war-torn Darfur who was invited to the game as a goodwill gesture by the Mevasseret team, a uniquely mixed Jewish-Arab group from Mevasseret Zion and Abu Gosh, both communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The club’s president, Alon Liel, said that including the refugees fit into the team’s larger concept of promoting coexistence in Israel.
“We are much more than soccer,” he said. “We support social action programs and helping refugees. We’re a team for everyone, including Darfurians.”
Thousands of African refugees have infiltrated into Israel from Egypt in recent years, many from the Darfur region of western Sudan where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced in fighting since 2003.
The Israeli government has sought a balance in giving refuge to those fleeing genocide while turning away a flood of illegal African immigrants, and it recently agreed to a compromise where it will grant 500 Darfurian refugees permanent residency.
Bashar, who escaped to Israel alone two years ago, now awaits word as to whether he will be among those permitted to stay. But he was all smiles as he greeted and thanked Liel for the invitation to the game in perfect spoken Hebrew.
“They are letting us feel not just like refugees, but as part of a sport. They are saying we are with you, and it’s not just about politics,” Bashar told ISRAEL21c.
The New Israel Fund (NIF), a social justice non-profit organization, helped Liel organize the event, providing transportation for the refugees from their temporary homes in Tel Aviv.
“We wanted to show them that as Israeli society we have a warm heart. We wanted to send a message that we will deal with the refugees openly,” said NIF organizer Udi Arnon.
Some 3,000 fans applauded in agreement when the refugees were invited down to the field and introduced personally by the announcer. The group of dark-skinned young men clapped in appreciation as they took the field.
Once the division four match began, the visitors became totally entranced. In the 37th minute, when Mevasseret scored the game’s first goal, the Darfurians were already part of the action, cheering wildly and then debating among themselves if they were in fact rooting for the right team.
Bashar said he was just delighted to be “doing life,” using a popular Hebrew slang term, as the crowd grunted in dismay when Maccabi Kiryat Malachi tied the score at 2-2 in the middle of the second half.
As Bashar continued to watch the game, he bounced around excitedly along with the local Israeli fans, who were dressed in Mevasseret’s signature red color and banging drums. This was the team’s first game in the large professional-sized Teddy Stadium after their expanding fan base outgrew Mevasseret Zion’s small home field that barely held 300 fans.
This soccer club with a social conscience is led by joint Arab-Jewish management, the first of its kind in Israel, and is encouraged to see the team rising through the ranks of Israeli soccer.
“We’re the antithesis to all the other teams in Jerusalem,” Liel said.
The Jerusalem soccer scene is almost completely affiliated with Betar Jerusalem, a top-level club with rowdy fans, some of whom share anti-Arab right-wing sentiment. According to Liel, Hapoel Katamon-Mevasseret is catering to a different kind of Jerusalemite and the refugees only added to their cadre of eclectic supporters.
As Mevasseret sealed a 3-2 victory with a penalty shot in the 77th minute, a slender Sudanese man got up in front of the fans and started a clapping cheer. He pumped his arms and energized the entire refugee fan section as everyone rose together to applaud the game’s closing minutes. For a brief time, at least, their hardships were forgotten and the Darfurians and the Israelis cheered as one.