Sharing his inspiring story with the future king of England could hardly have been less likely for 17-year-old Omer just a year ago.
The teenager from Akko was on the verge of dropping out of school when he was picked to take part on The Equalizer programme, an after-school educational programme which aims to develop self-esteem and leadership among youngsters in disadvantaged Israeli communities, while also promoting understanding between future generations of Jews and Arabs.
But such has been the improvement in his academic performance and behaviour in a short space of time that he was given the chance to train as a referee. He is now qualified and even recruits new volunteers to the programme.
So when William travelled to Jaffa to meet participants of the programme and another project run by the Peres Centre for Peace, he was among those to share his experiences.
“I can’t believe I actually got to meet Prince William and share my story with him,” he said afterwards. “He seemed really interested to hear about me. I told him that The Equalizer programme completely changed my life. I was doing very poorly in school and wasn’t interested in much. But I always loved football and would do anything to play. The coaches helped me a lot both at school and at home, they believed in me and kept pushing me forward.”
The groundbreaking programme attracts youngsters aged nine to 16 with the promise of weekly football training that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to take part in, but with the condition that they must also attend regular sessions on core topics like maths and english. It is supported by partners including the British Embassy and UJIA, whose Israel staff were out in force to greet the Prince.
More than 3,500 are currently taking part in the programme in Jewish and Arab schools – but every month they come together to play alongside each other in mixed teams. For many this will be their only opportunity to mix in their everyday lives.
Welcoming him to the project was Brighton footballer Tomer Hemed. As the pair walked past a giant image of England’s current World Cup king, they spoke about their mutual delight at England’s progress in Russia.
William took several penalties, scoring two despite the soaring heat. Among the youngsters taking a penalty was Omar from Jaffa, who said a common love of sport United him with his Jewish peers. On playing with the Duke, he said: “I was so excited and nervous but he was so friendly and fun. He asked us lots of questions and wanted to know what we want to do when we grow up.”
Liran Gerassi, who founded The Equalizer nine years ago while studying at Hebrew University, hopes the Royal visit will shine an international spotlight on the programme. He told the Jewish News: “It will also help build the kids’ confidence to say to go back to their communities and say they met the Prince. It will also be great to show the world and the British people that Jewish and Arab kids can get along despite the world thinking we’re fighting all day long.”
Prejudice between the two communities can be especially rife in communities where the programme operates, he said, adding the difference between the way the youngsters interact between the first and last tournaments of an academic year is striking. “It goes from being a big issue to a non-issue. Often we’ll go to play in an Arab village and the Jewish kids will be welcomed with handshakes and traditional food – it’s amazing to see. It’s making an impact now but even more for the future because these are the parents of tomorrow.”
The programme – which won the 2018 UEFA Foundation for Children’s Award – also addresses issues like bullying, racism and substance abuse. And while organisers hope to provide opportunities to play a sport participants love but may not otherwise have access to, Gerassi said: “But our aim is not to create the next Yossi Benayoun or Tomer Hemed. We first want to create good citizens who feel a connection to to their communities.”
Supporting the programme is part of UJIA’s efforts to develop the Galil region, where there is high unemployment and a weak educational system. In this region alone, where 55 percent of the population are Arab Israelis, the Equiiser involves 68 teams and 998 youngsters.
Natie Shevel, UJIA’s regional director for Israel, said: “I am extremely proud to have shown Prince William the British Jewish community’s extraordinary commitment to The Equalizer to empower and guide young children from Israel’s diverse social and economic periphery to believe in themselves, to step beyond their preconceptions, and to have the chance of a better start.”
British Ambassador David Quarrey described the project as one of the most impressive organisations the Embassy works with in terms of supporting interaction. “It was a great thing for the Duke to see,” he said. “It creates new possibilities for the young people who participate. It opens their eyes, humanises and you hope out of it comes possibilities for peace in the future.”