Megan Wilhelm is a Fulbright Scholar spending 9 months in Cyprus studying stereotyping in schools. Recently Megan volunteered as a coach during one of PeacePlayers International’s Cyprus twinnings that brought youth from the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities together to play basketball.
I was “Ms. Wilhelm” for my two years of teaching. It took some getting used to, but eventually I got comfortable with the title. But this past weekend, I wasn’t “Ms. Wilhelm” or even “Megan.” I had a strange new moniker: “Ms. Coach.” This unexpected title wasn’t bestowed upon me by a group of mathletes or mock U.N. debaters (which would probably suit my personality a little better), but instead was shouted loudly and often by a team of mini basketball players.
I woke up early on Saturday morning to head to the U.N. Buffer Zone where I would be volunteering for the day with Cyprus’ PeacePlayers International program. PeacePlayers International year-round programs are established in Cyprus, South Africa, Israel and the West Bank, and Northern Ireland—all regions dealing with conflict between divided communities. So, with the exception of the actual basketball part, the PeacePlayers International mission is directly aligned with my Fulbright research in contact between young people as a means of diminishing prejudice and promoting tolerance on this divided island I’ve grown so found of in the past few months.
The Cyprus PeacePlayers International program is led by a group of enthusiastic, kind, and motivated people, and is based in the U.N. Buffer Zone. When I arrived on Saturday morning, I saw a large group of kids vying for the attention of these leaders who clearly have taken the time to establish positive relationships and connect with all of them. After a couple of introductions, the crowd headed to Ledra Palace (the hotel-turned-barracks in the U.N. Buffer Zone that I described in one of my earlier posts). The guard opened the gate for us, and as we walked through the building I felt a fair amount of cognitive dissonance seeing U.N. soldiers surrounded by sweeping arches and other architectural hints of what was once the most lavish hotel in Cyprus. There is a fenced-in basketball court behind Ledra Palace that the PeacePlayers International program uses every month when the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot basketball teams come together to play. Once again, it was strange to see such a familiar setting lined with curls of barbed wire, but this is the reality of being in the U.N. Buffer Zone, and becomes somewhat less disconcerting with time.
As real as they may be, these physical indicators of the conflict in Cyprus quickly faded into the background, outshone by the energy, joy, and smiles of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot kids and their families, gathered here together to make new friends and play basketball. The excitement was quite infectious, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending the rest of the day with my unearned title of “Ms. Coach” to two teams of boys and girls.
I don’t think I did much in improving the dribbling skills or foul shot percentages of my players, but I cheered them on during their games or teambuilding activities and tried to make sure everyone felt included and appreciated. Honestly, though, I think the kids themselves were the true leaders when it came to building friendships and working together. Most of them only spoke one language—Greek or Turkish—but they did their best to throw in some English and lots of high fives to get their point across to the other players on their team. I also have to give them a lot of credit for being so forgiving of my own language deficiencies and basketball shortcomings.
So yeah, maybe a few times I accidently had seven of my players on the court at once, and maybe I can’t spin a basketball on my finger, but at the end of the day, PeacePlayers International is less about the actual basketball, and more about instilling the value of teamwork, developing friendships, and creating opportunities to bring people together. I’ve spent the last three months reading about what it takes for contact to bring about lasting positive changes, and the PeacePlayers International program in Cyprus seems to have managed to incorporate what many researchers consider the four essential conditions of a positive contact environment: equal group status, common goals, institutional/authority support, and cooperation.
I couldn’t be more impressed with what the PeacePlayers International program is trying to accomplish in Cyprus and in other divided communities around the world, and I have faith in the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot kids who participate—faith that they will someday play a role in bringing the people of Cyprus together and will work toward creating a more peaceful island because of the lessons they learned on the basketball court with their fellow Cypriots. I can’t wait to volunteer again soon!
Check out Megan’s blog here: Brightly Colored Wings