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‘We Will Not Leave’: The Canary Talks To The Gaza Sunbirds Paracycling Team

Above photo: Gaza Sunbirds.

Currently On The Ground In Gaza.

As Israel pauses its bombing of Gaza during a temporary cessation of violence, both it and Hamas have been releasing hostages. However, it is likely that Israel’s attempted genocide in Gaza and the Occupied Territories will continue after the so-called temporary ceasefire ends.

Israel has already killed nearly 15,000 people in Gaza, including over 6,100 children – and injured more than 36,000 more. Moreover, it has obliterated much of the territory, destroying vital infrastructure and homes. It is unlikely that Israel will end there – hence people’s objections to a ceasefire in the first place. Moreover, journalists are reporting Israel has breached the ceasefire, regardless – as its forces fired on Palestinians trying to return to Northern Gaza, killing two people.

So, with that in mind the Canary has spoken with members of Gaza’s paracycling team, who are on the ground there. They are among over 150,000 people in Gaza – around 7% of the population – who are disabled. This also includes over 3,000 amputated people – one of the highest rates on the planet.

The Gaza Sunbirds have given the Canary their insights into what life is like under Israeli occupation, how it has been for people during its onslaught, and what their hopes for the future are.

Gaza Sunbirds: Paracyclists And Humanitarians

The Gaza Sunbirds are a paracycling team founded in Gaza three years ago with the goal of competing in the 2024 Paralympics. They are amputees who lost legs when either peacefully protesting at the 2018-19 March of Return or in previous attacks by the Israeli Occupation Forces. Over the years, they have been affected by ongoing bombings, food shortages as a result of the 16-year siege, and the destruction of the International Cultural Centre in 2018 where they managed their sports project – all at the hands of the Israeli state:

Now, facing realities of Israel’s genocide, the Gaza Sunbirds are fighting for their community’s right to live, by organising and distributing provisions in the Southern city of Rafah.

At the time of writing, they have distributed $44,000 including 34,000kgs of food, baby essentials, blankets, female sanitary products, and more. You can donate to their Gaza Emergency appeal here. They are also launching a campaign called Athletes Against Apartheid. They are rallying the global sporting community to join them in demanding a sustained ceasefire and measures that will ensure a safe and dignified existence for Palestinians. Follow the campaign here.

“I Dreamt Of Becoming A Champion With Both Legs”

Alaa Al-Dali is the Gaza Sunbirds’ team captain. He founded the project in 2020 and was the first professional paracyclist in the Gaza Strip. Al-Dali decided to do something positive after the trauma of years of occupation – however his own story is equally harrowing. He told the Canary:

I fell in love with cycling since I was a child and started training as a road cyclist when I was 15.

Gaza is very small, and I only have one road that is approximately 35km for training: those of you who cycle will empathise with me and my teammates doing the same road up and down for hours to train! But it doesn’t matter, we do it for the love of cycling.

It paid off. I was selected to represent Palestine at the Asian Games in 2018. I was scared I could not go: in all my life, I was never allowed to leave Gaza, not for pleasure nor for competing internationally. This is why, few months before the games, I proudly participated in the March of Return protest at the border between Israel and Gaza, where I was shot by an Israeli Security Force sniper. As a result, I lost my leg.

Now, my biggest dream is to create a paracycling team out of the ashes and we aim big: the Paralympic Games. I want everybody to see us cycling on one leg and feel the power we have: we are not a burden to our society, we will make Palestine proud. We ride for freedom.

I dreamt of becoming a champion with both legs. After my amputation, I became determined to be a champion for Palestine with one.

However, those dreams have been put on hold since Israel started committing its latest round of war crimes in Gaza in October 2023.

Living Under Israeli Genocide In 2023

As the Canary previously reported, life’s essentials have been in a perpetual state of precarity thanks to Israel. It has intentionally left Gaza with limited water, food, fuel, and medical supplies. Plus, as winter approaches there is the added threat of disease. However, Israel’s actions have had further implications that just this.

Al-Dali told the Canary:

Thankfully I’m OK, but the situation in the neighbourhood is tough. What’s come is very difficult on us. They were bombing us all night. It was so violent in our area. A lot of people have been murdered. The situation is very difficult where we are. In our houses, we are not safe, there is no safety outside of the house. Even the UN schools – we wanted to run to them… they bombed them. The situation is very very difficult. The dead, there’s no-one to remove the bodies or bury them. The situation isn’t reassuring. Thankfully we have been OK up to now. I hope that lasts.

Mohammed Abu Asfour is a Gaza Sunbirds athlete. He has also been OK so far. He told the Canary:

I escaped with my bike from home. My family is in the school (now a shelter). I first helped them evacuate before me, then I followed them using my bike. The bike helped me escape the war although it was bombed and ruined. There’s blood of injured people on it, it was seriously targeted. We have survived. Praise to Allah.

Killing Journalists – And Friends

But so many people have not been so fortunate. Specifically, Israel has killed 46 journalists since its onslaught began. Abdel Hakim Awad is the Gaza Sunbirds’ social media coordinator. Israel killed his friend, who was a journalist. Awad told the Canary:

Wallah, my friend was martyred. He was going to photograph. He went to take a photograph, he was a journalist. He had nothing to do with any of this.

The catastrophe is that my house is on the border. The number of dead Palestinians around the border is horrifying. Just horrifying. One plane came and wiped them all out. The resistance is almost done with fighting now Israel has launched attacks.

Right now, like 30 mins ago, they hit a residential building with civilians. And then they attacked.

Do you hear the planes, the Apache helicopters? People are running from across the border saying there’s so many martyrs and the ambulances can’t even reach them.

Do you hear the explosions? The internet’s been cut. They bombed the internet lines.

We’re scared but we don’t know exactly where to go yet. Where we are has a lot of danger, but wherever we go it has a lot of danger.

It is what it is. Everyone from the North has fled South anyway. Where are we going to go? I mean we’re definitely not going to stay on the streets. The only choice we have right now is to leave the upper floors and all gather on the ground floor until we get the decision on what to do. If the bombing gets much worse, then we’re going to have to leave and hide in a hospital or school. My god, this is our situation regardless of what we want.

Moreover, the toll Israel’s actions have taken on children has been particularly devastating. Not least is the sheer number killed, but also the lasting mental health issues and trauma these young people live with.

‘She Wanted To Die’

Mohammed Abu Julia is the Gaza Sunbirds’ team manager. He told the Canary:

A little girl appeared while I was driving. She stood right in front of my car. ‘What’s happening’ I called out, ‘what’s your name, baba, what’s your name?’ I’m talking to her from the car window.

She tells me her name is Najwa. So I asked her ‘why did you jump in front of the car, if I was speeding I would have hit you!’

She tells me ‘I want to die.’

I asked her ‘baba, why do you want to die? You’re a good girl, you still have dreams’. She said ‘no, I want to die because I’m horrified.

Even kids are scared now from the noises and the news they hear, from the things they see. A child as young as eight or nine years old. She tells you I want to die. She tells you I want to die because it is better than the fear I am living. This is something that’s unnatural and inhumane.

For the team collectively, it told the Canary that some of its members are still missing, too:

We are not safe. There is no food. No Water. The darkness of the night is lit only by the fires of beasts that scream above us. You cannot use the actions of a few to dehumanise us with collective punishment. Days have passed and we have not yet heard from some para-cycling team members.

Most Gazan’s are young like us and have never done anything to hurt anyone. 50% of our population is under the age of 18. The policies of war and siege got us here, repeating history by providing military aid to encourage onslaught will only bring more harm.

However, amid the carnage people still do what they can to support each other – not least the Gaza Sunbirds.

Keeping Communities Alive

The team has been distributing life’s essentials to local communities. It told the Canary:

As the ground offensive raged on, more than 6,100 children have lost their lives. Children in Gaza face atrocious conditions. The mothers are no longer able to produce milk due to the impact of starvation. Kids remain in the same clothes in which they were injured with nothing to change into. Formula milk can only be mixed with contaminated water.

So, our athlete Abu Asfour trialled an initiative of care packages for kids. The team distributed 50 parcels in his local area. Moreover, he organised and supported a hot meal programme around Khan Younis to feed more than 900 people. It is unclear if we can keep doing hot meals, but this hasn’t stopped us from distributing close to 150 food parcels a day feeding over 2250 people.

While we are happy to help every soul, this support is hardly able to help 0.12% of the population. We need to end the siege and bring aid into Gaza. Even with our efforts, stores are losing stock.

Al-Dali told the Canary:

Some people started crying when they received the bread. Tears of joy. For bread. People were crying over receiving bread, something that was always available to us is now precious. People used to suffer from the lack of other things but not something as basic as bread. It was heartbreaking. It felt as if they were coming back to life receiving that bread.

I was out and my wife and family were very afraid for me. They were afraid of getting bombed while I wasn’t there too. But it was important for me to help people and I was concerned about getting this bread to people in need.

It is this resilience in the face of horror which permeates Gazan society more broadly. The Gaza Sunbirds, meanwhile, are determined that Israel will not break theirs or their people’s spirits.

‘We Are Not Leaving Gaza’

Noor Abu Shamale is a Gaza Sunbirds’ athlete. He told the Canary:

Regardless of what we are experiencing and there is no electricity or internet in Gaza, regardless of the destruction – the big destruction that feels like World War III – we are stronger than what we are experiencing. This is our country, we are not going to leave it. We will continue pursuing our dreams, regardless of what we are experiencing.

Hazem Suleiman is another athlete of the Gaza Sunbirds. He said:

Despite the bombardment and destruction and under the sounds of the bomber jets, we are continuing and we tell the world, “Here we are!” the Gaza Sunbirds team is still around. From the heart of Raffah in the South, we are continuing! With our love for cycling, we’re in Raffah and we’ve grouped up, and we repeat that this is our sport. We will reach the Olympics! We will represent Palestine!

Al-Dali summed up by saying:

Away from the despair of war, despite the bombing and the siege, we’re out for training today with captain Alaa and Gaza Sunbirds…the team is happy that they can get back to their favourite sport. This war on Gaza will end eventually. We will get our lives back. We will get back to cycling. Despite the bombardment and siege we are still here. We will keep going.

And as the Gaza Sunbirds team collectively said:

We will not lose hope in life. We will continue fighting for our communities right to thrive. And where the world leaves us alone, we the amputated youth of the camps have risen on one leg to support our people.

The team also have messages for the world they want to share.

Gaza Sunbirds: Messages To The World

Suleiman said:

There is no life here in Gaza, they cut our electricity and water, 90% of our internet is out. I hope my message reaches every human heart in the world. Our loved ones are gone, our friends and our family have gone. They were killed in the most brutal, indiscriminate way. This is the first time it has been this bad. This is my message to the world: support Gaza, stand with Gaza. We just want to live.

The current cessation in Israeli aggression is only temporary. People should not be fooled that the silencing of the bombs is in some way progress. Even if Israel’s current genocidal campaign ends, it is likely it will only be until the next one begins. Meanwhile, in the Occupied West Bank Israel continues to brutalise and subjugate Palestinians day in, day out.

Overall, the team collectively told the Canary:

We are fighting not only physical warfare, but also psychological warfare that will leave trauma for generations to come. Let this be our turning point, our call for immediate ceasefire and our unwavering commitment to end the genocide.

We need the world to stand up for us now and demand an end to these genocidal policies and narratives about our people. Like you, we have dreams and ambitions. Despite all that has been taken from us, we approach every day with peace and love in our hearts.

We have a vision of uniting our people through sports. We believe in a better tomorrow. This starts with real change, it starts with recognising our humanity. Recognise that we don’t deserve to die. If we cannot address the root causes nothing can be fixed.

No more war. No more kidnapping our kids. No more siege. No more fear. Our bloodshed will only end when we have our rights.

The Canary would like to thank Carina at the Gaza Sunbirds for her help in coordinating this article. We would urge you to support the team’s crowdfunding page for emergency aid here, and their campaign Athletes Against Apartheid here.

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