For the last 15 years, an international program has been attempting to take the first step toward world peace through an unlikely mechanism — basketball.
Peace Players International, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, works to unite children of different communities from around the world that have a history of violence through programs that combine basketball and education about resolving conflicts.
“Basketball is a universal language. It’s a way of bringing two kids together who have probably never met,” said Adam Hirsch, deputy director for development and communications. “On the court you’re following the rules of the game together.”
Since the organization was started in 2001, more than 69,000 youths in 15 countries have participated, and there are now four main programs that are located in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Middle East. PPI has also worked with programs in cities around the United States such as Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City.
Hirsch worked part time for the Golden State Warriors in graduate school but ended up taking a slightly different path in his career after hearing about PPI.
“I heard about an opportunity to travel the world and coach basketball and, more than that, use basketball as a tool to build peace and bring kids of different backgrounds together; it was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Hirsch gave the analogy that if one were to organize a peace conference, the only people in attendance would be advocates of peace, but in a basketball tournament everyone would come.
One of the newer programs is the Middle East program, which began in 2005. It is meant to address
cultural segregation problems that have developed between Arabs and Israelis as well as counter the image
of inequality of resources. So far 6,600 students have gone through the program, including some that have been there all 10 years and are now in their teens or 20s.
This program was the first joint Arab/Israeli basketball team in the Israel Basketball Association’s national youth league. Last year, the girls’ under 18 division won its champion-ship and played basketball at the White House with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
One of PPI’s more recent endeavors is the Mitzvah Project, which is meant to engage bar and bat mitzvah students in planning charity events such as basketball and golf tournaments. It has raised more than $150,000 through more than 50 projects since it was started two years ago. Some have the opportunity to go to Israel and visit the kids they help raise money for.
“In lieu of gifts, a lot of kids these days are choosing to do some sort of activity,” Hirsch said. “We had a kid in San Francisco write letters to Israel.”
Hirsch said this fall a new PPI program done in partnership with Adidas will begin in Washington, D.C. It will bring together 16 high school sophomores for a leadership development program in which they will work with trained coaches and mentors. They will travel to Israel next month to participate in an exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Adidas and the State Department, along with the United States Agency for International Development and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, are the main global funders of PPI, but the organization also receives funding from local communities. Baltimore’s funders include the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the Lois and Philip Macht Family Philanthropic Fund.
Among the individual donors is Ronald Shapiro, who lives in Butler and spent five years as chairman of the PPI board. Shapiro, a well-known sports agent and bestselling author, helped get the organization off the ground financially.
“I was called on after the organization had been around for four or five years to help figure out a strategy for fundraising,” he said.
Shapiro sits on the board of more than 25 different organizations but says this has been one of the most moving experiences of his life.
“I think it is so important that we find ways to build bridges if we care about the future of Israel and if we care about the future of the Middle East,” he said.
Shapiro has visited the program in Northern Ireland and frequently goes to Israel. He had planned to take his granddaughter to a tournamentthere last summer but held back due to Operation Protective Edge.
Shapiro said he was fortunate enough to meet the first Arab to play on the Israeli men’s national basketball team, Samer Jassar. Jassar was 14 when he joined the program and now works for Shapiro’s sports negotiations firm in Baltimore.
“At least a dozen of the kids who are in the Leadership Development Institute started when they were 5 or 6,” he said. “That ball that they grab is bringing them together. They haven’t built walls yet.”