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The Longest Lap Palestinian swimmer works to bring facilities and expertise to Jericho
A dream of going to the Olympics may have initiated Sadeq Damrah’s involvement with the Palestinian Swimming Federation, but now he’s dreaming larger than just swimming on the world’s biggest stage. Damrah, 25, was born and raised in Jordan, his mother’s native land. His father, however, is Palestinian. For the last several years Damrah has lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, while working on a doctorate in applied mathematics at the University of Alabama. In 2004, a month or so before the summer Olympics, Damrah contacted the Palestinian Swimming Federation. He wanted to compete for them. The team had been selected by then, but he was told he could start representing the team at world swimming events.
Over the past four years, Damrah has travelled to world championship swimming events competing in breaststroke events. But in the months leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games, schoolwork has taken priority over intense training. So, while Damrah will not swim in the Beijing Olympics, he will travel to China this summer as a coach for the Palestinian team. “It’s what I wanted,” he said. “I’d rather give someone younger a chance to compete at that level. I’ve had my chance to swim with world champions.” In addition to his leadership role as a coach, Damrah has become integral in helping bring the team to the world’s attention. “Because of my father, I’m considered Palestinian. So let me do something for my people,” Damrah said. “I know I can’t go back and live there because of the occupation and political situation. That’s not what this is about anyway. I have tried to do the best with swimming, but now I must do more.”
While Damrah has represented Palestine in the pool, he is now seeking to improve the swimming programme for future generations. That quest started with getting the team to qualify for Beijing. For the team to compete at the Olympics, the team - three men and two women -- had to qualify by attending the International Amateur Swimming Federation World Championships in Manchester, England. With no financial support for the team back home, travelling wasn’t easy. Damrah set out to find the money. He started by reaching out to a childhood friend living in California. “I’m Palestinian-American, and I was involved in swimming from when I was three until 18,” said Tasha Kadah, now 27. “We’ve known each other through the grapevine for years. Then with Facebook, we touched base again.” Kadah made a connection through a family friend to the non-profit Organization for Medical and Educational Needs (OMEN), which provides cash and scholarships to aid hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions throughout the world. The group has a particular focus on helping Palestine. The organization ended up footing the $16,000 bill to send the team and two officials to Manchester. “Supporting the swim team was a little bit of a departure [from what we do], but we thought it was a really worthwhile cause because these are five young athletes who have a future,” said Haitham Aranki, president of U.S. OMEN, adding that he was disappointed that others, especially the Palestinian National Authority, didn’t step up. Aranki noted that since Palestine doesn’t have other teams that can compete on the world stage, it was particularly important to support these athletes. “It’s nice to keep Palestine as part of the world arena,” he said. A grassroots effort to reimburse U.S. OMEN for the expenses has led to donations from around the world.
Damrah will fly to California in June to continue fundraising. “We would like to repay them and help raise more money to support what they do,” Damrah said. Although getting to the Olympics has been Damrah’s primary goal, it isn’t the entire dream. “My main thing is to get them a year-round swimming programme in Palestine so that they can continue to compete,” Damrah said. To do that, Damrah is helping the Palestinian Swimming Federation with its plans to construct a pool in Jericho, in the West Bank. Land has already been donated by the Palestinian National Authority for the pool, Damrah said that, but funding is still missing. Instead of seeking to raise a set amount, Damrah said he is looking for a financial backer and is reaching out to the same people who helped send the team to Manchester.
The need for a pool is something Kadah said is rooted in humanitarian needs, not political causes. “If you send Palestinians to [the] Olympics and build a pool, then these young swimmers are not going to be drawn into things that are not positive,” Kadah said. “We just want to provide a positive way for children in the West Bank to spend their time.” She noted that bringing the Palestinian swim team to the world stage could also help fight stereotypes of Arabs and Arab women in particular. “I am utterly against what the United States and other people in the world think of Arabs. We need to debunk the idea that they are terrorists," she said. “This allows people to see, yes, we’re Arab and come from a conservative background, and this girl is swimming in a bathing suit in the Olympics.”
Damrah believes a pool and year-round training would level the competition field for Palestinian swimmers. Right now they are not in a position to compete for the gold, but he believes just their presence in Beijing can make a difference. Aranki added, “These swimmers represent a people and a nation and their role includes all aspects of life, including sports and the right to compete with other nations and to have a team.”
Prepared by the Palestinian Swimming Federation.
This Week in Palestine