Photograph courtesy of Karim Ali/Gaza Sunbirds

Karim Ali Q&A: ‘The people of Palestine need to be seen as human beings’

Photograph courtesy of Karim Ali/Gaza Sunbirds

The co-founder of the Gaza Sunbirds para-cycling team on the urgent situation in the territory, the need for humanitarian aid and the Athletes for Palestine campaign

Karim Ali, 24, is the international coordinator and co-founder of the Gaza Sunbirds. The Sunbirds are a Palestine-based para-cycling team, launched in 2020, with the original mission of getting more people cycling, providing support to amputees in the community and representing Palestine on the global stage. The team has 20 athletes in Gaza, most of whom are aged 21 and under.

Ali, from south-east London, left his job as a product manager at a fintech company after the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli bombing of Gaza. Since then, the Sunbirds have refocused their efforts to deliver vital aid to people in Gaza.

At the time of writing, the team has raised more than £70,000, which has been used to distribute 21 tonnes of food, 100 blankets and duvets, 900 hot meals and 50 packages of babycare essentials such as clothes, nappies and formula.

How are the team in Gaza doing?

The situation is rough. Every day there’s less food, less water, and less communication. People are definitely becoming more desperate.

The last month that passed was tough for everybody. My project manager was sick but he couldn’t get medicine. I have some athletes who couldn’t get water for four days in a row. Food prices have gone up by 300-400%, indicating that soon there is going to be no food available.

People are living in constant fear, and the mental toll this is having on everybody will last a very long time, possibly for generations to come.

How do the Gaza Sunbirds hope to inspire people in Palestine and beyond?

The best way to answer that is through the story of one of our athletes: Ala’a Al Dali, whose leg was amputated after he was shot by an Israeli sniper in 2018.

Ala’a always says his dream is for every Palestinian and anyone else who may be losing hope to see that despite having lost his leg he is still on his bike. His vision is to inspire hope in the community and to show people that if he is able to keep dreaming of a better future, then they can too.

Reports estimate that, so far, more than 18,000 people have been killed and a further 50,000 people have been injured in Gaza.

The number of amputees and people with disabilities is only going to grow, which makes our mission more important and bigger than ever. We want to see ourselves moving in a direction where we can be a key service to the community after the bombing by getting people excited to be on bikes and learning to cycle. That’s a goal that we are starting to think about now.

How has cycling allowed the Gaza Sunbirds to connect with people across the world?

Our objective has always been to unite people through sports. I think sports provide a unique stage for that because it’s about fair play, equality, and everyone having a chance to compete. That’s very much not the case in Palestine right now, especially in Gaza.

As we are a sports team, it allows us to get our message into places where stories from Palestine usually might not be heard. We’re not an outwardly political cause but we are a politicised team because we live in a politicised land. For example, we were recently approached by the Daily Express — a newspaper that we wouldn’t have expected to write about us. Since 7 October, our story has been shared in the media in South America, Greece, Italy, the UK and across the Arab world. I think that’s a testament to the power and universality of sport.

How has the team’s mission changed in recent weeks?

Prior to 7 October, one of our main goals was to send a cycling team from Gaza to the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris. Right now, it would take a miracle for it to happen. The community centre we work from in north Gaza has been destroyed, along with most of our bikes. The roads are absolutely obliterated, which means there is nowhere for the guys to train any more. 

Now, every day is a large coordination effort to get funds into Gaza. I think this time has really allowed the Sunbirds to prove themselves to the community and show how well they work together as a team. Despite living in an active warzone, every day they have been out delivering aid on their bikes. We also have a film crew on the ground that we send out to document stories of people living in Gaza, and the actions the guys are taking to help.

Can you tell me about the Athletes for Palestine campaign?

We are in a very desperate situation, and we need support from the athletic community across the world. We know that a lot of athletes have their eyes on what’s happening in Gaza, but the campaign is about asking them to publicly stand with Palestine.

We’ve had a great response so far. Some athletes who have pledged their support include Mark Rohan, a gold medallist Irish cyclist; Nico Deportago Cabrera, a cyclist from Chicago in the US; and Ryan Lay, a skateboarder from Arizona, US.

What can people in the UK do to support the Gaza Sunbirds?

Right now, we all just need the violence to end. I can talk about future fundraising plans and the hopes of the team to compete in the Paralympics, but none of that will mean anything if the situation doesn’t change.

Here in the UK, we have to keep speaking up about what’s happening. Keep going, don’t slow down, don’t let the pressure drop and don’t settle for a ceasefire. The people of Palestine need our full rights, and we need to be seen as human beings, as people.

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