'For the first time, I feel like I am valued' - Meet the Israeli team at the Homeless World Cup

'People don’t look at them. They are the lowest priority for Israeli society. Here I watch them and they hold their heads high'


At first glance, Dina does not appear the sort of person who has been through traumatic experiences beyond the comprehension of most. But look closer and her arms bear the scars of self-inflicted wounds.

She left the family home in Israel (and her five-year-old son) at 22, having fallen out with her mother. Without a place to live and socially isolated, she became reliant on drugs, an addiction which spiralled over the next 23 years.

This week, Dina, 45, was resplendent in bright blue football kit in Cardiff as one of the Israeli squad in the latest edition of the Homeless World Cup, one of more than 500 players from more than 50 countries.

The event is intended to inspire participants while raising awareness of homelessness on a global level.

It has been a “life changing opportunity”, Dina told the JC, having sat out a game against Holland in the five-a-side tournament, which her Israeli teammates lost 9-2.

She is no longer using drugs, in part due to the support from the Israeli charity, Kick Start, which utilises football to engage the homeless. It also helps them access therapy, legal advice, vocational counselling — and, most importantly, housing.

She is one of eight players from the Jerusalem-based Kick Start team brought to Wales for the World Cup.

Dina nearly didn’t make it. Team co-ordinator Assaf Yonovich revealed that Israeli border officials were not going to let her leave the country because of a string of debts and court judgments against her.

“It is not easy to get homeless people out of Israel,” he said.

“Of course they all have debt, they have problems you and I can’t imagine. We had to fight for these people. They didn’t have passports. Many of them have never left the country.

“I had to plead with officials and explain how important it is for them to be able to travel. Thankfully, they let her leave because, if they hadn’t, she said to me: ‘I would have gone on the street and taken drugs again’.”

Dina — whose family came to Israel from Russia more than 20 years ago — first encountered Mr Yonovich in a homeless shelter in Jerusalem two years ago.

She had been “doing hard drugs” and been in and out of jail. “I wanted to kill myself.

“I remember I had injected myself with vodka and woke up in hospital. I went to rehab for the first time and spent a year in a therapeutic community. But then I came out and was back on the streets again.

“Being a woman on the street is hard,” she added, voice quivering and fighting back tears. “There is no protection.”

She was gang-raped while living rough but the thing that has affected her most is “not being able to care for my three children [she had given birth to two others since leaving home]. I left them with my mum. It hurts me so much.”

She had gained a sense of purpose and pride from the week-long tournament.

For Kick Start founder Omri Abramovitch, the change in the players had been palpable.

“People don’t look at them [in Israel]. They are the lowest priority for Israeli society. Here I watch them and they hold their heads high.

"They are playing in front of an audience. People are cheering them on and they are representing Israel in another country. To put that level of trust in them is so powerful.”

Mr Abramovitch set up Kick Start in 2013 and it is one of the causes supported from the UK by My Israel, which promotes lesser known charities. “We have two teams in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem,” he said.

Mr Abramovitch believes football provides a unique opportunity to enable those who are “used to surviving on their own to work together and trust each other.

“There is a bond that is created when they play football. You don’t often see groups of homeless people together.

“You might see them side-by-side sleeping but they are solitary because it is dangerous for them to trust others.

“Football allows us to connect with them and build up trust. It can take us years to build that trust but we do it through the game and then we can help get them into housing, off drugs and in counselling. But it is not easy.”

Another member of the Israeli team is Yossi, 35, whose homelessness stemmed from mental health issues following army service.

Born in Ethiopia, his family made aliyah when he was ten. He currently lives in a hostel in Jerusalem.

After the army, he went back to live with his family in Beit Shemesh but he started doing drugs and alcohol. He has been on the streets in Tel Aviv for around ten years.

Since joining the Jerusalem team a year ago, he has only missed three training sessions.

Post-World Cup, he hopes to leave the hostel and move into an apartment with fewer people.

Mr Abramovitch added that there had also been life lessons for the Israelis in losing games. “It brings up all sorts of issues for them — disappointment, anger, shame. Football allows us to engage with them over these issues.”

With homelessness not rating as one of Israel’s “popular causes”, Kick Start struggles for support at home and abroad.

“These people come last when you think about supporting Israeli society. But they shouldn’t.

“I believe the way we treat the weakest people says a lot about how strong our society is.

“If you want to strengthen Israeli society, then you should strengthen this population.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel estimates the homeless total at around 25,000. Yet the number of people helped by the country’s social services is less than ten per cent of that.

According to Mr Abramovitch, nearly half the homeless population are immigrants.

“They come here without the social ties that you or I might have. And when there is a crisis, be it a death, a divorce, they don’t have the support they need.”

So devoted is he to the cause that he has slept rough to better understand what those on the streets have to deal with.

“More than needing money, even more than needing housing, they wanted a friend, someone to care about them, talk to them, make them feel human.

“That is why this trip is so important for them. They aren’t just playing football. They are seeing and doing things that are changing their lives.”

It was also important for them to recognise homelessness as a global problem.

“They see all the other teams and know there are people like them everywhere.”

Dina said that having “wasted” 20 years of her life on the streets and fighting addiction, meeting Mr Yonovich and the team from Kick Start was the “first time I heard people say good words to me.

“I felt like I had a family. I am so grateful to be here. It gives me light in my eyes to see the green grass and smell that the land is different. For the first time I feel like I am valued. I am like everyone else.”

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