Fred & Gloria Strickert
One day about fifteen years ago, when we stood watching the boys kicking around a soccer ball on the old Bethlehem Lutheran School playground (where the Dar Annadwa auditorium now stands), the ball went astray among a group of girls, doing what most 10-11 year old girls would do. Most stepped back to avoid getting hit. But Honey Thaljieh, stepped forward, and with the kick of her foot sent the ball flying, beginning a long journey that would take her around the world on an amazing adventure.
In the mid 1990s, when we spent a sabbatical in Bethlehem, Honey’s older sister Amal and our daughter Rachel became the best of friends. In Palestinian culture, young women generally would not go out on the streets alone,
so Amal's ten-year old kid-sister Honey and brother Issa would often tag along. Honey was an energetic and out-going child, full of self-confidence. Here in the 1996 photo is young Honey with Issa and Amal (in red) and their mother Naheida (on left).
We often wonder how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects children growing up amist strife and tension. The first intifadah spanned the years when Honey grew from three to eight. The second Intifadah corresponded to her late teen-age years. And she experienced some traumatic events living just a stone’s throw from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem--a cousin Johnny Taljieh was shot by snipers as he left worship after serving as acolyte.
Honey found strength by faithfully attending church every Sunday, remaining active in Sunday School, Youth Group, Choir, and in the Lutheran School—there at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church where Mitri Raheb is pastor. And Honey has made the most of it, completing her B.A. in Business Administration at Bethlehem University and becoming the head of the national sports programs for Palestinian girls—and rising as a role model for girls growing up in Middle Eastern society.
Last Sunday at Redeemer, when we saw Amal—now married and living in Jerusalem—after fawning over her two cute children, we then asked, “So how’s Honey?” “Oh she’s in the States.” And as an afterthought, Amal added, “Playing Soccer, of course.”
Sure enough when we checked the news online, we saw a Huffington Post story with the headline, “Hillary Clinton Launches Girls Soccer Initiative,” (Click on red links for news stories) and as we might expect, most of the quotes came from Honey.
"It’s not only about playing football. It’s about living in Bethlehem, the city of peace, and delivering the message that we are humans and that we have rights," Thaljieh said. "Through football, we can change the world because football is a language that everyone understands."
ESPN reported a White House speech of the Secretary of State to a gathering of the U.S. Women’s National Team, and eighteen up-and-coming women stars from places like Pakistan, South Africa, and Palestine. Honey, now 26, is serving as a coach, having thrown out her knee in her rugged style of play and still recovering. This week the athletes are competing in New Jersey and demonstrating their roles as ambassadors of good will.
Up until 2003, soccer/ football was considered to be strictly a boy’s/ man’s game. But when Bethlehem University’s athletic director, Samar Mousa, had the idea of starting the first women’s soccer team, the first recruit was Honey, and she has taken the role of captain of every team ever since.
The National Team, like Palestinian society, is a model of interfaith relationships. Honey, of course, is Christian and so are other teammates, but the team is a mix of Christian and Muslim.
There are also political barriers. As a national team, they wanted to have several players from Gaza, but it is impossible with lack of travel permits to practice together. So before their first international competition, they first traveled to Egypt where they could practice together.
When the team was ready for international competition, the first match was scheduled in Ramallah where they would host a team from Jordan. The venue was the 10,000 seat stadium where the men’s teams played. No one was disappointed, except those left in lines on the streets when the crowds—with a majority of women fans—filled the stadium to capacity. And the game? No one was disappointed. With the Palestinians leading most of the way, Jordan tied it 2-2 at the end. Perhaps that tie-score was a fitting message about what was accomplished. The match was featured in a New York Times story.
The Palestinian team has now played in a number of regional tournaments in Amman, Abu Dhabi, and Europe. Through her work with PACES (Palestine Association for Children's Encouragement of Sports), girls teams in soccer and other sports are popping up across the West Bank--though a few areas continue to resist . There is also a women’s soccer league representing major cities. Currently in first place is the team sponsored by the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem’s Dar Akalima/ Diyar Consortium. See their webpage. As would be expected, Honey captains the team.
Who would have dreamt such a story when a ten-year old Honey stepped forward to kick that soccer ball back to the boys on the Lutheran School playground in Bethlehem?
Fred & Gloria Strickert