I had been in Lebanon for less than a day when someone said to me, “You’ll have to choose a team, you know.  Everyone’s going to ask you about it.”  This was absolutely true, as it turned out.  I had arrived in mid-June for five months of living and working in a Palestinian refugee camp, and much to my surprise, everyone was seized with World Cup fever.  This was hardly what I had expected.

What I had expected was what I saw at Bourj el Barajneh camp in Beirut, where I stayed during my first week.  The crowded Palestinian camp was a labyrinth of tight little alleys, the housing was stacked high (often looking quite precarious), electrical wires crisscrossed and tangled together in the air wherever you looked, and young children tried to make the best of it, attempting to play in the narrow, airless, sun-deprived passageways.  It was the picture of an underserved population.

It seemed odd at first to see flags for different World Cup soccer teams flying everywhere throughout the camp – flags from Germany, Italy, Argentina, and yes, Brazil, the crowd favourite.  Although I’m not much of a sports fan, I quickly became grateful for the World Cup as I started to meet some of the Palestinians.  As a newcomer, it was a topic of conversation that never let me down, whatever our cultural differences.  Everyone, from children to grandmothers, was engaged in it.  I soon joined the Brazil supporters.

As woman, I wasn’t free to watch soccer games in public places, enjoying the shared energy and rowdy enthusiasm of the crowds of spectators.  Instead, I saw a few games in the homes of Palestinian families, who welcomed me warmly and generously as a new friend.  During a commercial break, the adolescent son of one of my hosts turned to me and said, “In four years, it will be a Palestinian team that wins.”  He punctuated his comment with a wink, and the wink said a lot.  This bright youth knew he’d made a far-fetched statement, but it spoke of his aspirations for his people.

For a while I was baffled by the teams the Palestinians rooted for in the games.  I’d expected them to cheer for the underdogs, but instead they were clapping and shouting for the most powerful teams.  I came to wonder whether their heart-felt support for the best teams was a way of honouring their own strength and abilities, in a time when so many feel diminished and forgotten by the rest of the world.

Lying in bed one night in the camp, trying to get to sleep while a World Cup game played on, I was able to keep score by the sounds that rose up in the dark with each goal.  Shouts, honking horns, fireworks, and perhaps even some celebratory gunfire marked each triumphant moment of a team that was worlds away.  “Yes, we are here,” the Palestinians seemed to declare into the night.  “Even here, in this camp, we are one of you and with you.”

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