‘They can keep dreaming’: Gaza Sunbirds aim to offer hope for future of Para cycling in region

When we think of training for the Paralympics, there are so many important pieces required in order to ensure that the athletes journey is as smooth as possible.

Equipment needs to be adapted, travel arrangements need to be confirmed and of course routines (nutritional, physical therapy) during training are imperative.

Imagine trying to keep your dream alive amidst massive displacement, death, trauma, facilities and equipment being decimated and your family and community fleeing from bombs falling. These are some of the things the Gaza Sunbirds have had to endure.

Since Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas attacked an Israeli compound and killed 1,200 people, the Israeli army’s response on Gaza has been relentless. According to Reuters, the death toll of Palestinians, relief workers and others has exceeded 35,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million people in the Gaza Strip.

While sports may not seem like a priority in a war zone, for many athletes and Para athletes, keeping their dreams alive is imperative. As a part of the global sports community, people all around the world find connection and happiness in sports and Palestinians are no exception. Palestine is recognized by the International Paralympics Committee and has participated in every Games since 2000.

Sports can be about anything from intense competition to mental perseverance, and it can even be about basic survival. Survival through sport is exactly what the Gaza Sunbirds are doing — keeping their Para sports dreams from turning into rubble.

In 2018, cyclist Alaa al-Dali was training to compete in the Asian Games. During one of the weekly demonstrations of The Great March of Return, he was watching the protests when a bullet from an Israeli sniper hit his leg and shattered his bone.

Al-Dali’s leg had to be amputated. It was also the amputation of his dream of being a professional cyclist.

Gaza Sunbirds co-founder Karim Ali connected with al-Dali soon after that through his own relief work and activism. They met online regularly and over the course of a year decided to start a Para cycling project.

I spoke with Ali, from London, where he explained how he helped to create a global movement in Para cycling. Ali, now 24, was a Pharmacology student and had very little knowledge of Para cycling or what it might entail.

“Al-Dali said a bunch of inspirational stuff about how he wants to start a team or you know, he wants to get going and he wants to raise the Palestinian flag, or the flag of the Paralympics,” Ali said. “When the war started, we had 20 athletes doing five sessions a week. We developed quite a bit from year one. we had more stable funding. We had four or five members of staff in Gaza. Things were finally looking up for us.

“And then Oct. 7 came. Everything, even the community centre that had our bikes got bombed. We lost like 11 or 12 bikes. The team was divided into some people eventually [remaining] in Gaza and some people went south to Rafah.”

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Ali felt helpless sitting in London. “I didn’t know what the hell to do,” he said. He thought that distributing bread and providing community support through the bikes would work. It did.

The Sunbirds went viral in October for using their bicycles to distribute food to civilians in Gaza.

According to a press release from the Sunbirds, they are still continuing with aid mission on the ground and have organized more than $140,000 US worth of food and supplies.

Passion fuels perseverance

Al-Dali loves Para cycling and he feels it is a way to couple identity with his sport in order to provide an example of possibility and pride of being Palestinian.

He told me that he fell in love with cycling as a young boy in his village. He was the only one who had a mountain bike.

“I’ve loved cycling for 22 years. My bicycle is part of my soul. Cycling is everything in my life,” he said.

After he lost his leg, he continued to cycle on an adapted bicycle.

“When I started it was very difficult. I rode it and fell. And again fell, and again. To the extent that I ended up in the hospital and the doctor told me I’m not allowed to ride the bike because I will harm myself,” he said.

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But that didn’t stop him.

“However, I returned to ride the bicycle with passion and love. Then I started thinking that I should promote cycling in Gaza and in Palestine at large since it is not present at all.”

Getting the equipment for a Para cycling team seemed impossible at times. Ali said that since 2007 there have been heavy restrictions on bringing steel components and mechanical pieces into Gaza. Most of the bikes on the market are known by their street name: “trash” — but good bikes only came in once every two months, depending on how tight the borders were.

They are then worked on, with necessary modifications made for limited-use limbs like the Sunbirds. They used regular bikes and could only help people with leg amputations because they didn’t have the experience or technology to make adaptations for other forms of injuries or disabilities like visual impairments, or hand cycles.

Hoping for Paris Paralympic berth

Right now, al-Dali is in Malaysia and hopes to receive a wildcard berth to the Paris Paralympics. He was evacuated to Europe in the spring with team coach Hasan Abu Harb, where they received visas from Italy and rode in qualifying races.

While the number of Sunbirds was as high as 50 participants at one time, that number had dwindled due to dropout rates that were exacerbated by lack of cycling shoes (they would tie their shoes to the pedals with shoe strings), helmets, athletic kits and limited transportation within Gaza.

After Oct. 7, so much of Gaza has been destroyed, athletes have been displaced and had to flee multiple times. Recurrent infections, poverty and lack of physical safety make it impossible to train — but they ride.

At present, despite the destruction of resources, the few Sunbirds who remain in Gaza continue to Para cycle when possible. There used to be grassroots fundraising efforts including Para cycling events with some global support through social media amplification.

Right now that is not possible, but helping al-Dali achieve his dream is important and weighs heavily in the Para cycling community in Gaza.

He is a shining example of hope to younger generations. Ali said that Gaza has the highest number of pediatric amputations in history, a fact which has been widely reported and reiterated by UNICEF. This means that one day, these young people could be Para athletes.

Of course they need to survive, but al-Dali is riding for their futures not only his own. Before Oct. 7, al-Dali was teaching young amputees.

“I started teaching the youth that have disabilities. They enjoyed it a lot. I started training them after I had learned on my own, using the experience I gained by myself,” he said.

“I taught them, Alhamdulillah [Praise be to God]. Then the sport became more popular in Gaza. Soon more than 50 athletes in Gaza were riding. Cycling became an essential part of their lives. More than being just a sport, it was their mode of transportation.

“We really see cycling as an alternative to transportation,” he said. “We think that particularly for amputees, it’s an amazing way to get around, it’s faster than a wheelchair … cycling and swimming are the least damaging sports for your body.”

At this point, connections with UCI, the Paralympic Union and the Paralympic division of the UCI are helpful and support is needed. Ali said he and the Sunbirds administrative team are working on full partnerships with the National Cycling Federation on sending al-Dali and the other athletes to races.

They handle all the administrative sports-based logistical technical aspects that actually make it happen. But evacuating civilians from heavily bombarded areas is difficult and evacuating amputees can be more arduous. According to Ali, the federation is opening doors that need to be opened — which is what a federation should do.

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But above all, Ali says the mission is to provide hope and al-Dali agrees.

“There’s no excuse for not doing anything. Building a nation really takes everybody’s work and everyone believing. And if people that have lost everything, because of the wars, because of the occupation — they can keep dreaming and can keep coming up with an idea for a future that they want.”

For now, the Gaza Sunbirds will continue to raise attention to their team and support al-Dali in his quest to become the first Palestinian Para cyclist on the world stage.

“We are present and through our presence and participation we raise the flag and give hope to all of Palestine,” al-Dali said. “And we give hope to all families who have athletes, so they can support their children in their sport.”

A goal for which he will be passionately pedalling and advocating for on behalf of Para athletes in the region.

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