How one man’s Olympic swimming dream is saving lives in Gaza

Amjed Tantish looks out to sea from the wall of the pool he built. The Gaza Strip, July 2017. Photo: Susan Schulman

Nine-year-old Maisa Abdiram runs along the beach with her friends, eyes sparkling, long brown hair flying, a huge grin plastered across her face. Dancing from foot to foot, she and her friends giggle 
uproariously as they dodge through the gigantic jellyfish which the crashing waves have scattered among the assorted flotsam on the sand.

The sea has been uncommonly rough for the last few days, delaying the start of the much-anticipated swimming season.

Thick white foam still sprays high into the air over a crude sea wall, 15 metres from the shoreline. But it is just that bit calmer today, calm enough to clean the beach, to dig out the delicate nets from the wet sand where they have fallen and rehang them on the thin poles used to mark the entrance to the swimming area.

Young swimming students led by the 
enthusiastic Muntasser Ibrahim Sehweil, 15, rake the sand and scoop armfuls of rubbish into sacks. The last of these are being carted off as the setting sun turns the evening sky scarlet and a parade of camels and horses passes by.

Peering out from under the brim of his trademark cowboy-style hat, Amjed Tantish looks out over the sea, assessing the situation. Lessons in ‘Tantish Pool’ – the name scrawled in red letters on the rubble walls by his students – will begin the next day, he declares. Muntasser, a boy with Olympic dreams, beams with delight. “Captain Amjed!” shouts Maisa with joy. Swimming has changed her life.

Amjed Tantish takes a class through a swimming drill. Photo: Susan Schulman

 

This is Gaza. Arriving in this sliver of land, one of the most densely populated places on earth, you leave behind the 21st century – the bright lights of Israel, with its gleaming high-rises and impressive infrastructure – and enter a land of donkey carts, dirt roads and dilapidated buildings. At night the strip is plunged into pitch darkness, punctuated occasionally by the dim cold-blue glow of LEDs that Gazans have rigged up to batteries. The power supply is fitful, limited to four hours in 
every 12.

It wasn’t like this here 18 years ago when, on a stifling summer’s night on the roof of his home in the border town of Beit Lahia, 22-year-old Amjed Tantish, then backstroke champion of Gaza, conceived his bold plan to get to the Olympics.

He would not be able to take part himself – he’d started competing too late and there was a lack of serious coaching available in Gaza. Instead he would build a team of swimmers from Gaza who could represent Palestine at the Olympics. And at the same time, he would save lives by giving swimming lessons that all the local kids could afford. “I decided to start training from zero,” he says. “I would start with children at the right age – five or six. I began lessons for children, to get to the Olympics with them.”

In 1999 everything seemed possible after several years of relative stability in Gaza in the wake of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and 1995. Amjed launched his swimming lessons using the fishing port of Gaza City as his pool, and was swiftly overrun with students. When his older brother Majid emigrated to the US in early 2000 – something the brothers had discussed doing together – Amjed decided to stay and bring his dream to fruition. “Back then, it was easy to go back and forth,” Amjed explains. There was no need for haste. “It was holiday time for Gaza,” he remarks wryly.

I decided to start training from zero. I began lessons for children, to get 
to the Olympics with them” — Amjed Tantish

The Tantish family has deep roots in Beit Lahia. Amjed, now 40 and a father of four, was raised here like generations before him. Acres of fruit trees on the family farm roll down a gentle incline to the 1949 Armistice Line two kilometres away. Beyond, Israel spreads out to the horizon in all directions. Amjed has invited me to join his family for a picnic. We duck and dive through the branches of the fruit trees, settling where their tangle forms a welcome arbour that shades us from the hot sun.

Leaning heavily on a cane, Amjed’s father, Reziq Tantish, 78, joins us, the light dappling his white skull cap and illuminating a wide, radiant smile. He is very like Amjed – a warm, convivial man with giant swimmer’s hands. He was nine when the Israelis arrived in Beit Lahia in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war which followed Israel’s declaration of independence.

We had thought that once the fighting was over, we’d be able to go back to normal. But the catastrophe was much greater than we expected” – Reziq Tantish

“When they reached here, Israel started to drop barrel bombs so we fled,” he remembers. “We returned after the truce in 1949 but so many refugees were living here, hungry, on the bare land. We were scared, we had thought that once the fighting was over, we’d be able to go back to normal. But the catastrophe was much greater than we expected,” he says.

These lush acres of verdant fruit trees have been bombed, destroyed and replanted many times. Much blood has been spilled here. But today it is an oasis of peace, the only sound the inescapable buzz of an Israeli drone hovering in the skies above us.

The brief period Amjed describes as “holiday time” for Gaza ended on 28th September 2000, when Ariel Sharon walked on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Temple Mount, which is of sacred significance to both Muslims and Jews, had been overseen by Muslims since the time of the crusades: with the creation of Israel, it became a hotly contested flashpoint. Sharon’s act was seen by Palestinians as a deliberate provocation and helped precipitate the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising), also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Amjed’s lessons have prevented many deaths from drowning and brought joy and emotional healing to Gazan children”

The fighting which followed Sharon’s visit lasted for four years. During this time, Israel’s incursions into Gaza caused death, injury and widespread property destruction. Human Rights Watch states that between September 2000 and 2004 “well over” 3,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were killed and 34,000 injured, mostly civilians. On the other side, Palestinians are estimated to have killed nearly 1,000 Israelis with guns and suicide bombs.

Gazans were barred from working in Israel and travel restrictions between Gaza and Israel were tightened. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who had jobs in Israel soon found themselves unemployed and long-established working relationships between Israelis and Palestinians in agriculture and crafts struggled to continue. Within three years, any remaining business collaborations with Israel had ended, devastating the Gazan economy. After a promising start, it was an overwhelming setback for Amjed’s plans of creating an Olympic swim team. “It was not a time for sport,” he notes dryly. Doors were closing to Palestinians hoping to go abroad too, and after 9/11, Amjed’s brother Majid warned him that it had become a dark period to be an Arab in the US.

In Gaza, residents only have electricity for four hours in every 12. Photo: Susan Schulman

Since the Second Intifada ended in February 2005, Gaza has been devastated by three separate wars with Israel. The area has been under a decade-long siege which has left its infrastructure destroyed and its water polluted, undrinkable and in short supply. Unemployment in this 140-square-mile strip is estimated to be running at 41.5 percent, the highest in the world, and the population is not allowed to leave without difficult-to-obtain permits.

Since Amjed launched his swimming school 18 years ago, the lessons have become less about getting a Gazan team to the Olympics and more about helping traumatised children. Amjed has become well known in the Strip. His lessons have prevented many deaths from drowning and brought joy and emotional healing to children. “I am famous as Abu Amjed [Amjed’s father],” Reziq exclaims. “He is the conqueror of the sea!”

It has been a long, hard road. But Amjed is not satisfied with merely conquering the sea – he has never totally given up on his Olympic dream.

 

Amjed’s first pool was in Gaza City’s port – a perfect spot, he explains, wide enough for team training, with crystal clear water calmed by a jetty. But when Israeli forces destroyed sewage lines in 2004, the water in the port was contaminated and the pool abandoned. An improvised pool on the beach followed – “I dug a hole and lined it with plastic,” explains Amjed – but was destroyed when Israel launched “Operation Summer Rains” in 2006. Undeterred, Amjed built a pool on the family farm to keep the swimming lessons going, but on 27th December 2008, war broke out once again.

Operation Cast Lead, also known as the Gaza War, was launched with the aim of ending rocket fire into Israel and weapons smuggling into Gaza. It lasted for only 22 days, but the devastation wrought on the local population during that time was momentous and unprecedented. According 
to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 13 Israelis and 1,391 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, 318 of them children.

Amjed’s house was hit. Two of his nephews, 11-year-old Hamza and 17-year-old Mahmoud were killed. “It was 7am. I was woken up by the shell, the noise, the smoke. It was so terrible,” says Amjed. He shakes his head, eyes glazed. “It was the worst day I have lived. Everything was destroyed, including the pool.”

In the wake of the war, which left 5,300 
wounded, Gaza’s Community Mental Health Programme reported high levels of anxiety, insecurity and other symptoms of trauma among children. 
“It was so painful, but I felt the children needed the pool to recover from the war so I built one on land I bought in Beit Lahia,” says Amjed. It was a beautiful creation lined with patterned tiles, and he used it to offer free lessons to all the children in his deceased nephew Hamza’s class as well as to the children of a friend who died trying to rescue a group of injured people.

Amjed Tantish with one of the pools he was forced to abandon during military incursions. Photo: Susan Schulman

But the strain of keeping the classes going eventually broke him. “I did everything I could to help the children but many couldn’t pay and I was left with a lot of debts. In 2011, I was exhausted financially.” Amjed shut down the classes. “It was a painful choice for me. It was like I was dead,” he explains, “I had run these classes for 12 years through wars and intifadas, but I was just exhausted.”

In 2014, after five children from Beit Lahia drowned in the sea in a single week, Ajmed decided to start again. The worsening economic situation made it impossible to use the pool he’d built: there was no money to pump or filter the water. He found a place on the west side of the Gaza seaport with shallow water and started a charitable programme to support the classes. They didn’t last long.

 

Operation ‘Protective Edge’ was launched on 8th July 2014 with the stated aim of stopping rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel. Fifty days later 2,104 Palestinians and 72 Israelis had been killed. Amjed lost another nephew and a cousin. They were killed in the fields and the bombing was so fierce that their relatives couldn’t risk going outside to retrieve their bodies until after the truce. “The war was hell. Everything was destroyed,” Amjed says with a sigh. “It was a very dark period of my life.” He wasn’t alone in that feeling.

A donkey clatters along the dirt lane next to the home of Amjed’s student Maisa Abdiram in Beit Hanoun as we sit outside drinking tea with her family. As the bombing escalated in July 2014, Maisa and her family took refuge with around 3,000 others at the nearby UNWRA Abu Hussein school. They had been there for a week when the school was bombed on 30th July.

Maisa Abdiram, nine, at 
Tantish Pool, July 2017. “Swimming has changed her life.” Photo: Susan Schulman

“At 5am we woke up to the sound of women screaming,” Maisa’s older brother Ibrahim Abdiram, 28, remembers. “Then I looked around and saw my father and brother torn to pieces and I looked at myself and my legs were blown off.” Ibrahim’s four-year-old daughter Rahaf is playing at our feet, wearing thick lenses in blue-framed glasses. She was not yet two when shrapnel from the bomb hit her in the head, leaving her with permanent ocular damage. Ibrahim looks over 
to Maisa, who is sitting in the chair next to him. Her brown eyes are brimming with tears. She has shrunk down into her chair as her brother tells his story, her fingernails digging into her clenched fists.

Ibrahim had always been the family joker but when they implored him to help make them smile after the war, he was sceptical. “I said, I am disabled – how can I make you happy? But they said you have a way about you…” He tries to inject levity now, grabbing the window bars overhead and pulling himself up, swinging his legless torso around and acting the fool. Maisa’s eyes brighten and she allows herself to grin at 
her brother.

Maisa’s fellow swimming student Muntasser also lost family members in the bombing of the Abu Hussein school. “I felt so scared during the war,” he remembers. “Death was around in all directions. It affected my spirits. I felt so bad at the loss of my relatives and the destruction of my town.” The trauma hounded him long after the last bomb fell, tormenting with recurrent 
nightmares. “I would dream that me and my family were sleeping and Israeli soldiers broke into the house and killed us all.”

Muntasser Ibrahim Sehweil at Tantish Pool. Muntasser dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer like his hero Michael Phelps. Photo: Susan Schulman

To get over the war, he says, he tried to focus on swimming, reclaiming his dreams of becoming a champion like his longtime hero, US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Amjed was 
determined to help. “In 2015, after the war, the need for lessons increased because the children needed major support,” he explains, “Swimming is not just fun, but it is huge from a social and psychological perspective too.”

The war had destroyed Gaza’s main sewage pipe. Raw sewage was once again pouring into the sea, and the coast down-current from the port was dotted with red signs emblazoned with skulls and crossbones warning of the danger of death from pollution. With the infrastructure so seriously damaged, the fresh water needed for swimming pools was in perilously short supply – there was not enough to meet the basic needs of the population, never mind support the luxury of swimming.

If I had gone abroad, I could have had a good life but I would have done nothing to help the people here” — Amjed Tantish

But the landscape of devastation proved 
inspirational to Amjed. Using the rubble of bombed-out buildings, he would create his own mini-seaport pool in unpolluted water up-current from the destroyed sewage mains: a phoenix would rise from the ashes of the war. He secured permission from the municipality and, using a loader and fuel they provided, set about excavating the pool, creating a foundation and a boundary wall from the rubble of destroyed houses.

“At the beginning I underestimated the 
power of the sea,” says Amjed. He surveys the 50 children practising front crawls and kicks in the 
water of Tantish Pool, one of whose walls still bears the words “Abu Saleem Playground”, a hangover from its former function. “That first year, I had to 
re-excavate three times. It was a crazy idea. But eventually it worked.”

Children swimming during one of Amjed’s classes. The red graffiti on the rubble wall reads ‘Tantish Pool’. Photo: Susan Schulman

To cheer Maisa up, Ibrahim used to take her to the beach. Before long, Amjed took her under his wing, bringing her to lessons in the new seaport pool. She slowly started to smile again. She has just emerged from the water after a class when I ask her what swimming has meant to her. “Before swimming, I was feeling bad emotions and was not at all happy, but with swimming I feel so much happier. And not only that,” she exclaims excitedly, “but I am also a coach for some of the other children now!”

Despite everything Amjed has been through since he began his classes 18 years ago, he has 
no regrets about not getting on that plane to 
America with his brother. “I am very happy that I stayed,” says Amjed, who estimates he has taught more than 5,000 children to swim. “If I had gone abroad, I could have had a good life on my own, I could have grown from an academic and financial perspective, I could have enjoyed freedom but I 
would have done nothing to help the people here. Thousands of children would have lost their chance to swim and many lives would not have been saved if I’d gone abroad.”

After years of frustration, Amjed’s Olympic hopes came a step closer in February 2017, when German NGO Sternenstaub agreed to sponsor 20 members of a swimming team. At the end of the summer, Amjed picked his team and began training them in earnest. There remain many obstacles – not least of which are the prohibitions on exiting Gaza – but nonetheless, it is an exciting time. Muntasser made the cut for the team and is ready for the challenge. “I kept dreaming about this,” he says. “God willing, you will see me at the 2020 Olympics.”

 

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