x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UN makes dream come true for Gaza children

A group of 10 schoolboys from Gaza adopt Portugal as their team after winning an academic contest through the United Nations.

CAPE TOWN // A group of 10 boys left Green Point Stadium, disappointed that their team had lost their World Cup Last 16 match. But not too disappointed. The schoolboys were from Gaza, and they were in South Africa as guests of the United Nations (UN). They won an academic contest and their reward was a five-day trip to see a match live at the World Cup - and the outside world.

None of the boys had been outside of Gaza before, but on Tuesday they were in Cape Town, watching Portugal, their adopted team, lose 1-0 to Spain. The game was one highlight of their journey, which included a meeting with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "The kids are very happy. They never imagined they would ever get the chance to travel to South Africa," said Imad Okal, a UN area operations officer in northern Gaza and the group's chaperone.

The boys, aged 13 and 14, chose to support Portugal because of their love for Cristiano Ronaldo, the team captain and one of the game's most glamorous players. "This is a wonderful feeling, especially to watch this game," Tariq Abuazou said. "Ronaldo is my favourite player, I love him." Walid al Houd proudly wore a Portugal tracksuit jacket. "We are very grateful," he said. Football has not dominated the itinerary, however.

The boys visited St Georges' Cathedral to meet Archbishop Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning cleric and first black South African Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. They also toured the District Six Museum, which recognises an area that was established in 1867 as a community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans and labourers. They were scheduled to make the 30-minute ferry ride to Robben Island to see the notorious penitentiary where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned, but the trip was cancelled because of choppy waters.

The competition that brought them to Cape Town was sponsored by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The boys were selected by the UN after months of exams and interviews. The contest was based on their knowledge of human rights, a subject emphasised in the national curriculum in Gaza schools. "Part of their reward was to come to South Africa and understand what we went through in our history and meet our people. It is a great programme," said Noore Macerodien, a project manager for the city of Cape Town.

The boys seemed grateful for the opportunity. "This is the only time I have ever left Gaza," Nazim Salah said. "South Africa is a wonderful country." Abuazou said the trip would help him and the other boys broaden their view of their world. "We love our people in Gaza and now we are seeing another civilisation, with different customs and cultures," he said. "In modern South Africa, there is no difference between white and black - just like in Gaza."

emegson@thenational.ae