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Freedom Runner

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Nader was the only athlete from the Gaza Strip in Beijing | Photo credit: Tom Spender

As an Olympic standard competitor, he believes that he would have given the Irish athletes a run for their money. Shane O’Connor chats to the Nadar al-Masri.

Nader has been invited to compete all over the world but most of the time the Israeli and Egyptian imposed blockade has prevented him from exiting, along with the other 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Gaza strip.

‘Palestine’s Hero makes History in Dublin’, was the headline that we were hoping for this autumn, but it wasn’t to be. Nader al-Masri, a 33-year-old athlete was yet again denied permission to leave the world’s largest open-air prison, Gaza. As an Olympic standard competitor, he believes that he would have given the Irish athletes a run for their money.

Nader has been invited to compete all over the world but is consistently prevented from leaving the Gaza strip due to the Israeli and Egyptian imposed blockade.
“It has always been my dream to come to Ireland and to run in front of a large crowd of people and show the world that we too have special talents in Palestine and we have dreams and ambitions apart from surviving the bombings and the daily harassment that exists here.

I met with the so called ‘Palestinian Gabrselassie’ in Gaza earlier this year when I travelled to Gaza to meet with NGO’s, civil society groups, academics and more impressively for me, young sports people themselves. We were invited by the UN agency, UNWRA, to take part in the Gaza Marathon as part of an effort to raise much needed funds for a summer sports project that tries to reach out to 250,000 children every year. Irishman John Ging set up ‘the summer of fun’ in 2009 when he was head of UNWRA and so we were warmly greeted by locals.

Our Olympian guide who hoisted the Palestinian flag in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 showed us around the strip. It quickly became apparent just how challenging it is for the people of Gaza to participate in any type of sport, something that we almost take for granted in Ireland. The national football & athletics stadium was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets in 2012. We watched Nader and a team of 26 young runners prepare for a race they hoped to compete in for the first time in Bethlehem, which is just 51.1 miles from Gaza. Their training looked tough but not as tough as the bigger obstacle that lay ahead of them, getting through the Israeli checkpoint which isolates them from the rest of Palestine. All 26 athletes were refused permission to run. Trying to lift his spirits, we suggested Dublin as a new goal and Nader bit.

I believe that sport should be an activity used to move beyond and break down borders, to reduce isolation and act as an outlet for those who are struggling. I think that we need more sporting role models to speak out on behalf of those inside the sporting world and outside of it who are voiceless.
Nader’s journey of hope, resilience and sporting ambitions remains on course as far as he is concerned, he pledges to try again in 2014 to come to Ireland and compete in either the Cork or Belfast Marathon and if he is still denied the right to travel, he will set his target on Dublin again next October.

I admire his positive attitude greatly and see him clearly as a role model for all young people living through conflict. He is certainly under pressure to give up his sporting dreams from a number of angles but somehow I don’t think he has this in mind. It is my hope that with the assistance of Irish development organisations and sporting bodies like Soccer Against Racism Ireland, that Nader will come to Ireland in the near future to do what any other athlete of his ability and ambition should be allowed to do.

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