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Meet the girl who dreams of being Gaza’s first Olympic swimmer

Fatima Abu Shedeg dreams of leaping from the blocks at Tokyo 2020

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Saturday 21 July 2018 20:50 BST
Gaza's first Olympic swimmer

A 13-year-old girl from Gaza who has survived three wars is an unlikely candidate for an Olympic swimming champion. Until four years ago Fatima Abu Shedeg was not only unable to swim but had never been in a pool.

Yet despite the challenges she has faced, she spends her days dreaming of stepping onto the starting block at the Tokyo 2020 Games as Gaza’s first Olympic swimmer.

In 2014, Fatima lost her father during the last war with Israel, which raged for 51 days and left more than 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead. She saw her uncle’s legs blown off in the same airstrike that killed her father and destroyed most of their home in Beit Lahia, north Gaza.

Like many children in the tiny enclave, she suffered from post-traumatic stress. Then Amjed Tantesh, 42, a swimming coach and one-time Olympic hopeful, encouraged her to learn to swim as a way of channelling her depression and anger.

“A week after my dad passed away Amjed called my mum and offered me and my brother swimming lessons. My dad was killed by shrapnel from an airstrike which ricocheted off the wall and hit his heart. The same airstrike blew off my uncle’s leg. We were all downstairs screaming,” she said sitting by a small pool filled with murky green water in Gaza City.

“It’s extremely important for me to achieve my dream, the dream of my family, of my coach, to be the first Gazan swimmer to take part in the Olympics,” she added.

Four years later, the fitness and football fanatic spends her free time training in grubby and sometimes makeshift pools. Gaza is in the 11th year of an Israeli blockade, meaning Fatima cannot even get hold of proper swimming equipment. She is left to swim in a mismatched pair of pyjamas. If she qualifies it would be her first trip out of Gaza, which is just 25 miles long.

She said swimming had helped her deal with trauma from the war and made her stronger.

“I don’t want to be afraid any more. I want to be strong. I used to even be afraid of the pool, of water, and now I’m not. I’m determined to work on myself, to succeed,” she said.

In June Save the Children reported that a staggering 95 per cent of children in Gaza had depression, consistent with deep psychological distress. The charity said the constant threat of conflict, the fear of bombs, and the constant insecurity caused by the unstable political situation had created a psychological crisis in the country.

Many fear Gaza is now on the brink of another war with Israel as tensions have reached boiling point.

On Friday the Israeli army said one of its soldiers had been killed by Palestinian gunmen near the border, the first Israeli military death near Gaza since the 2014 war. The army unleashed a tide of airstrikes that pummelled over 60 military targets in the enclave, in one of the most intense days of violence in four years.

By the end of the day, the Gaza health ministry said that at least four Palestinians had been killed. As fires raged through the strip, a shaky truce brokered by Egypt was enforced. On Saturday, the United Nations urged both sides it was “imperative” to step back from the brink of a “devastating conflict”.

At the heart of the latest eruption of hostilities is 16 weeks of Palestinian protests near the border fences that the Israeli army has met with force. More than 140 Palestinians been killed by Israeli fire since 30 March, when residents of Gaza first marched on the fences demanding right to return to ancestral lands they were forced from during the 1948 war which surrounded the creation of Israel.

Some of the protesters have taken to launching burning kites and balloons attached with explosives at Israel, sparking more than 750 wildfires and scorching 2,600 hectares of land.

The Palestinians maintain the protests are peaceful and Israel is firing on them with live ammunition. Israel says their soldiers have been attacked and the wildfires are endangering Israeli citizens.

Earlier this week saw the most intense exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel since the 2014 conflict. Egypt reportedly intervened to stop war breaking out.

Amid the escalating conflict, children, like Fatima, have suffered the most.

Mr Tantesh said there were few resources or outlets for the youth to deal with trauma, though swimming had proven a cheap alternative.

He launched his swimming initiative in 1999 and said he has since taught more than 5,400 children to swim.

Because he initially lacked access to pools and so, in the aftermath of the 2014 war, Tantesh built a makeshift sea pool by using concrete blocks from bombed-out buildings to cordon off an area of the beach in north Gaza, where the water is less polluted.

In 2015 alone, he taught some 465 children, with most of them receiving free swimming lessons.

“All of them are war afflicted, they have lost a father, mother, relative or they have had a house destroyed,” he told The Independent.

“But our new ambition is to prepare some of those children to qualify for the Olympics. Fatima is by far our best chance, she has developed the fastest and so we hope she will represent Gaza in Tokyo 2020. I have never seen such determination and persistence,” he added.

The Palestinian territories have participated in the Olympics since 1996, represented by the International Olympic Committee as they are not formally recognised as a country.

Since then more than 20 athletes have taken part, in athletics, judo and swimming. Bar one person, a young judoka from Jerusalem who qualified in London’s 2012 Games, they have all competed on a wild card scheme.

The Palestinian Olympic Committee chooses its teams from Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian communities across the world. So Fatima will face stiff competition while she makes do with scant resources.

Gaza lacks an Olympic-size swimming pool and the few pools it does have struggle to stay open amid chronic energy shortages. It is also increasingly dangerous to swim in the sea.

Gaza’s environment authority said last year that nearly two-thirds of its 25 mile coastline was seriously polluted.

Sewage treatment plants cannot function due to the power shortages. The United Nations said that more than 100 million litres of waste water are pumped into the sea off Gaza every day.

With filthy beaches and not enough electricity to keep pools clean, trying to train a swimming team is near impossible, according to the Olympic Committee in Gaza.

In a battered office and sat in front of a battery-powered fan, Munther Masalmeh, the committee’s secretary-general, said it would be a “major achievement” for a swimmer in Gaza to reach the Olympics.

“There is not a single pool in Gaza that hits international standards. With our infrastructure problems it makes it even harder. It would be a major achievement to have a female swimmer here because of the lack of resources,” he told The Independent.

The Israeli blockade also restricts access to sports equipment. Mr Masalmeh claimed even iron goal posts were banned because the Israelis feared they could be used to make weapons.

“Sports equipment gets stuck in the ports for year and does not reach the athletes. In addition, the Israelis have in the past banned players from leaving Gaza to participate in international tournaments,” he added.

Nonetheless, Fatima hopes one day to get permission to leave Gaza and take her place at the Games.

“I want to achieve my dream to be picked for the Olympics, so I can travel and compete in the 100m race,” she said, putting on her swimming pyjamas.

“I don’t just want to participate, I want to get first place, so those who picked me are proud.”

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