By Mohammed Abuajwa (YES 2017–2018, Gaza, placed by AFS in Kansas City, MO)
I grew up playing soccer on the streets of my neighborhood with my friends. Each day was a challenge to prove myself with speed, agility, and skill. When I started my YES year in the United States, the soccer season had already ended at my host school and I was left with a lot of free time. I did not know what to do but then my host sister suggested, “Why don’t you play basketball? You’re tall. You can do it!” Thanks to my host sister’s advice, everything changed. Not only did I fall in love with a game I had never played before but then I started trying other sports like football, frisbee, baseball, track & field, cycling, and more!
I didn’t mind that my teammates were almost always much more experienced than I was because I just liked the idea of having fun while trying something new. To me, that sums up the meaning of sports. Of course, there would be playful banter between opponents; I would win, I would lose, but this was all part of the fun. I loved trying new things, especially when it involved sports. Perhaps the other thing that I admired so much about sports in the United States was how everyone was so enthusiastic about spectating and participating. Seats in the gym would fill up quickly and the noise would shake the court as the players dribbled the ball up and down. The passion in the athletes’ eyes and the competition were amazing to observe.
After returning home, I hoped to find a similar sports environment, but I found that most people were not interested. Back home, the stakes didn’t feel as high and there weren’t as many tournaments or competitions like there were in the United States. I was disappointed to discover the limited availability of opportunities for athletes and I even thought of quitting altogether. After my initial shock, I decided to make a difference.
I proposed a project with the YES alumni network in my community. My idea was to promote the YES program to children while introducing them to different sports that I played in the United States. Sure enough, it was a success. The kids asked questions about the YES program and seemed motivated as they played football and baseball. I also had the pleasure of coaching them in basketball. I saw them all running around, cheering, smiling, and challenging each other, while just living in the moment. One kid told me, “Thank you so much for today, Mohammad, I will never forget you.” These words made my heart burst with joy. I also volunteered to help American college students research a topic about Gaza to make a documentary. I helped highlight the athletic situation in Gaza and I felt proud to discuss this issue that is so important to me.
To this day, I still can’t contain my excitement whenever I get on the basketball court or play football. After all those years, I can say that my time in the United States helped me realize that the child inside me who likes to run all day, no matter how sweaty or dirty he gets, and who likes to compete, is still a part of who I am.