MAP staff member joins Palestine’s first football team for people of short stature

Haitham Saqqa, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Community Programme Officer in Gaza, has always been a strong advocate for the rights to health of people with disabilities. In this blog, he shares his personal story of growing up as a person of short stature and how his dreams of playing football for Palestine have now become a reality. 

From the moment I kicked a ball in my garden in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, I knew that football was my passion. But little did I know that my journey to the pitch would be filled with challenges and obstacles. 

I'm three foot seven inches, and I identify as a person of short stature. If you ask me about the specific or scientific condition I have, I actually can’t tell, as there are no genetic tests that can identify my condition in Gaza. This doesn’t matter to me, but there are approximately 400 types of short stature conditions. 

Daily life presents unique challenges due to my stature, as many places in Gaza are not accessible and everything seems designed for average-sized people. Shopping trolleys are nearly impossible to manage, and I often require assistance to reach items on high shelves. I struggle to see above the reception desks in emergency departments at hospitals. Climbing stairs can be exhausting, and reaching ATMs and lift buttons present ongoing difficulties. Being physically different has its challenges – people can be rude and hurtful, but mostly ignorant.  

Growing up, I was always the shortest child in my class, and my height became a defining feature of my identity. While my friends were dreaming of becoming professional football players, I had the same dream, but deep down, I wondered if it was even possible for someone like me. 

As a child, I would watch football matches on television, and imagine myself scoring goals and celebrating with my teammates. I used to go to football training with my classmates at school but never participated in a match. That’s when my dreams often clashed with the reality of my stature. But my parents and grandparents never discouraged me from pursuing my passion. They encouraged me to play football whenever and wherever I could.  

I hope that one day society can stop seeing us as abnormal

As the years passed, I completed my studies at university. I also got married – I found my missing piece, Besan, a woman that chose me and fought for me. We are both blessed with three beautiful children. I also secured a job at MAP in 2009 as a Community Programme Officer, and I have one of the best jobs ever! I work with two great partners: the Social Development Forum (SDF) and Ard El-Insan (AEI).  

“As I continue to chase my football dreams, I hope that my story inspires others to never give up on their aspirations.

My work with people with disabilities in Gaza has helped me to build trust and bridges among communities, and contributed to breaking down social barriers. It has also allowed me to connect with my community, particularly during Israel’s military attacks and times of emergencies. I am grateful for the chance to learn and share my experiences, especially concerning the rights of people with disabilities.  

Most importantly, I continued to play football with friends in my neighbourhood. But it wasn't until I turned 34 that a remarkable opportunity presented itself. I joined the Palestine Sport Club in Gaza which nominated me to play at the Palestinian national football team, exclusively for people of short stature.

I went to training, surrounded by other passionate people like me who had faced similar challenges throughout their lives. It was a powerful and emotional experience, standing alongside people who shared my love for the game and my unique journey. Along with five other football players, I joined the Palestinian national football team which was established in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 2020.  

Our team quickly became a tight-knit family. We trained relentlessly, pushing ourselves beyond our limits, proving that our height did not determine our abilities. The team was expected to play its first match in Morocco last May. However, lack of funding and visa issues deprived us of the opportunity to represent Palestine.  

But in Gaza, we still managed to shatter stereotypes and prove that passion and determination can conquer any obstacle. I am grateful for the opportunity to join the team and look forward to contributing to their success in future. 

As I continue to chase my football dreams, I hope that my story inspires others to never give up on their aspirations. Together, we can break down barriers and prove that the beautiful game of football is for everyone, regardless of their height. 

I used to wonder why I was born like this – I couldn't make sense of it, but today I'm actually thankful for it. I guess my faith in God helps me through it. I hope that one day society can stop seeing us as abnormal and start to meet us halfway – at least in terms of accessibility. At the end of the day, I'm just as much part of the population as anyone else and have just as many needs, feelings, and aspirations as any other human being. 

MAP and our partners work to uphold the rights and dignity of people with disabilities in Gaza. To support this vital work, please make a donation today. 


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