Jerusalem24 – Dozens of Palestinian women and girls – from students and amateurs, to boxing players and fighters – had the chance to attend a three-day boxing training program last week with a US delegation of boxing professionals.
The Girls’ and Women’s Empowerment Boxing Program, sponsored by the US Office of Palestinian Affairs (OPA), Palestine: Sports For Life, and the US-based Humpty Dumpty Institute, ran from 19 to 24 February in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
US Department of State sports diplomacy programs “utilize sports to engage on and teach about American culture while providing a platform to develop participants’ leadership skills, promote inclusion, and show young people how success in athletics can translate into achievements in the classroom and in life,” according to the OPA.
OPA Public Affairs Counselor Carissa Gonzalez said following the conclusion of the six-day program, “We hope that the young women who get the chance to meet our athletes will be inspired to reach their full potential as leaders and advocates for health, sports, and peaceful conflict resolution in their communities.”
A similar program targeted 300 young basketball players in August last year.
Raquel Harris, Tibor Jushaz, Melissa St. Vil, and Ronica Jeffrey, all professional, award-winning boxers and trainers, joined us at Jerusalem24’s studios in between training sessions to regale us with the highlights of their trip, and their pearls of boxing wisdom.
A universal language
This isn’t the first time traveling as trainers and mentors for Tibor and Ronica, who participated in a mentoring program in the Dominican Republic two months ago. It is however their first visit to Palestine. Tibor describes it as “a life-changing experience.”
For Ronica, the international mentorship programs just make sense. “Boxing is something that’s universal, it doesn’t really need a language. So we want to give that to other people.”
This idea of giving back is what drove the four of them to Palestine.
“Tibor suggested the idea last year,” says Raquel. “It was a yes from me.”
Relating to the kids
Their first trip to Palestine has left each of them with strong impressions.
“You know, you see a lot on television and sometimes you can a pre-notion of them – and I think it’s the total opposite,” Ronica says. “I think the women have definitely showed us a side of them that you probably don’t know of. They’ve definitely been informative of their life and what they go through, the way that things are and aren’t. I’ve learned a lot about what’s going on here.”
Tibor says he also feels “more educated about the situation” – and adds that he “feel in love” with Ramallah: “Almost every night we went out walking and it’s a wonderful place.”
But more than the city, it’s the encounter with the young boxing trainees that has been the most meaningful.
“We’re leaving and going to Jerusalem tomorrow, and it actually brought us to tears, just leaving them,” Ronica says. “They’ve definitely made an impact in our life.”
For Raquel, the highlight of the trip has been the children. “Outside of fighting, I’m a personal trainer and most of my clients are kids. So it fulfills me working with them, and being that person in their life that they can look up to.”
“I feel like doing that here was an opportunity to spread that, especially here in Palestine, it’s very meaningful for them,” she adds. “Surprisingly, I could relate a lot to the kids too.”
Melissa says she was also able to relate to the stories she heard from the women and girl fighters. She shares that one of her personal goals is to elevate other people and “be a human light” for them, “because I was broken and I didn’t have that. So boxing moulded me.”
“Now I go around and I speak to young girls and I show them how to get through it – even if it’s not boxing,” she emphasizes.
“Just kick on that door”
The trainers try to make use of their personal journeys in inspiring their young mentees.
“I think a lot of times you’re afraid to do things that you may be uncomfortable with,” Ronica shares. “Boxing allowed me to kind of test myself, just to see what it is that I have inside or the things that I can do. For me fighting kind of put me in a place where I felt like I had to do it, there was no turning around. So I kind of put my back against and it allowed me to see that when my back is against the wall, that I can still show up.”
She says allows her to push herself forward in other areas of her life, and she encourages any fighters out there to pursue other passions in parallel to boxing. “What is life if you can’t feel fulfilled or if it doesn’t give you something, some excitement to it?”
Raquel seconds that thought. She herself has found a way to complement her boxing career with other passions of hers, writing a screenplay about boxing and a cookbook targeting fighters, a project for which she partnered with a dietician.
She makes sure she always tells the children she trains to prioritize their education because “it’s imperative to make sure you have a backup” in addition to following your dreams. “As a woman, when you’re pursuing something that doesn’t seem lucrative, you might not get the support you want initially. But set a goal for yourself because it can become lucrative, you can create that opportunity for yourself.”
Melissa, with boisterous and infectious enthusiasm, enjoins aspiring fighters – and everyone everywhere – to “Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid because it’s your life. Don’t listen to other people’s opinions because it doesn’t matter. And just kick on that door, do it!”
For Tibor, who left Hungary for the US specifically to be able to pursue boxing, “Everything is possible.”
For any young women who may be facing challenges in the pursuit of their passion for the sport, such as disapproval from their parents, Ronica expresses the hope that “you see what we’re doing and do understand that your talent is worth it.”
“I’m not saying defy your parents – but you need to understand what you have and dig into it, find a way to do something that makes you happy.”
The overwhelming message the trainers leave their young trainees with might be best expressed by Melissa: “Just go pursue whatever your heart desires, and forget about the opinions of the world.”