Israeli Arab Paralympian takes pride representing Jewish state in Rio

Elham Mhamid doesn’t take her responsibility lightly. Neither does she take her handicap too seriously. The 26-year-old from Umm el-Fahm worked hard to become captain of the Israeli women’s goalball team. She also happens to be legally blind, suffering from achromatopsia, a hereditary disorder characterized by decreased vision, light sensitivity and a complete inability to see color.

She takes great pride in representing Israel in international competitions. And no competition is bigger for her than next month’s Paralympics in Rio.

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“For me being captain comes with a lot of pride and responsibility and I think I deserve this responsibility,” Mhamid told The Jerusalem Post. “I will do everything to make my country, my relatives and the Arab sector proud, showing that there is no difference between all of us and that we can live together.”

Goalball is a team competition designed specifically for blind athletes and is one of 23 sports in the Paralympics. It was added to the program of the 1980 Summer Paralympics, the first sport in the games designed specifically for disabled athletes.

Each team consists of three players who try to throw a ball that has bells embedded in it into the opponents’ goal. Players use the sound of the bells to judge position and movement of the ball. Mhamid was the first Israeli woman to take up goalball 10 years ago. The Israeli women’s national team was established shortly afterwards.

“I loved sport from a young age but wasn’t allowed to play in school because I couldn’t see the ball,” she said. “I always felt I was missing out on something. Then, at the age of 15, I heard about goalball. At the same time our current coach, Raz Shoham, decided to set up a women’s national team and I joined.”

Israel’s goalball team won the gold medal at the 2015 International Blind Sports Federation World Games in Seoul. Now the team is aiming for the top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro.

“We are aspiring for the gold medal but it won’t be easy,” said Mhamid. “It will be a big challenge to face the best teams in the world.” Mhamid, who is studying for her master’s degree in drama therapy at the Kibbutzim College of Education (Oranim) in Tel Aviv, said there was initial tension between her and Jewish members of the team, but that quickly faded. “It was difficult at the start,” she admitted.

“I only began learning Hebrew when I was 18 and didn’t know the culture. I was even scared of soldiers. They also didn’t understand my culture. We slowly began to get to know each other and everything worked out. Now I feel that I really belong. I love everyone and they love me.”

Mhamid is unhappy with the limited media coverage received by the Paralympics. “If you broadcast the Olympics then you have to broadcast the Paralympics. That shouldn’t even be a question.”

“There is an additional reason to show the Paralympics which is to raise awareness of the different sports which people are unfamiliar with,” she said.

“I only started with goalball at the age of 15 or 16, but had I known about it earlier I would have been able to begin training beforehand. There are a lot of kids who are sitting at home and don’t know about the different sports in which they can take part.”

Mhamid said the squad is like family. “We sleep together, we go out together, we train together, we cry together and we do everything together,” she explained. “This is like my second family.”

Despite not being able to relate to “Hatikva,” Mhamid is desperate to hear it in Rio. “Any way you look at it, the national anthem doesn’t relate to me. Nevertheless, I still get emotional hearing it when I’m on the top of the podium and I see the flag,” she said. “I would like the national anthem to relate to me one day. I’m part of this country. I belong here. That should be a given.”

The Paralympics start on September 7, in the same venues as the Olympics, which end Sunday night.

The article was published on The Jerusalem Post on the 21th of August 2016

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