Image for The para-cyclists delivering aid to displaced Gazans against all odds

The para-cyclists delivering aid to displaced Gazans against all odds

A symbol of human resilience, Gaza’s para-cyclists ride through bombsites delivering aid to displaced people

A symbol of human resilience, Gaza’s para-cyclists ride through bombsites delivering aid to displaced people

In the city of Rafah, southern Gaza, where some 1.5 million displaced Palestinians have taken shelter but now face having to flee again, Alaa Al Dali is deep in negotiations with vegetable vendors in the Reqqa souk. 

Al Dali, captain and co-founder of the Gaza Sunbirds para-cycling team, moves from one shop to another with the help of crutches and a prosthetic leg, haggling for lower prices so he can deliver parcels to the highest number of displaced people possible. 

Gaza Sunbirds, a nonprofit, was formed in 2020 to provide cycling development to Palestinian para-athletes so they can participate in international tournaments, including the 2024 Paralympics. It’s a dream that the 25-member team has had to put on hold since Israel went to war with Hamas in Gaza following October’s terrorist attacks by Hamas gunmen in Israel. The conflict has killed around 28,000 people and injured 67,000 more, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.

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“The reality of war and displacement for the amputees and their families pushed us to refocus our efforts toward aid relief to respond to the needs of people,” says Al Dali, who lost his right leg after being shot by Israeli soldiers during a protest.

The athletes, all aged between 18 and 26, lost their limbs during previous Israeli attacks on Gaza, or during the 2018 Great March of Return, a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the return of refugees to their villages. 

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), some 75% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people are now internally displaced, and UN human rights experts warn that “every single person in Gaza is hungry, a quarter of the population are starving and struggling to find food and drinkable water, and famine is imminent”. 

Alaa Al Dali says refocusing the group's efforts to aid came in response to dire needs for food and essential items

It adds urgency to the Sunbirds’ work. To date, the team has distributed $70,000 (£56,000) worth of aid, including 53 tonnes of food, reaching more than 170,000 people in southern and central Gaza. Aid packages include baby essentials, sanitary products, and other necessities such as duvets. Aid money is also used to pay stipends for the athletes and their families. 

“The children especially are under tremendous psychological stress,” Al Dali says. “We decided for one of our missions to distribute toys just to bring some joy to their broken hearts.” 

What if we lose more limbs?

After three hours of haggling, Al Dali finally agrees on a price with a vendor. Overtaken with a sense of triumph, he starts packing the vegetables with the help of his teammates. They work under the watchful gaze of nearby merchants who eye their prosthetics until some 200 parcels have been filled. 

The Sunbirds – who themselves have been displaced from different parts of the Gaza Strip – then distribute the food on their bikes. Despite the physical strain, and the challenges of getting around due to the destruction of roads and overcrowding, delivering the aid in person is something the team insists on doing as a sign of resilience and possibility. 


Damaged streets and overcrowding have posed a challenge to mobility for the team but they power through to deliver aid

“Delivering aid on our bikes and walking with the help of a crutch is a message that life can go on amidst the waves of despair overwhelming the Palestinians since the start of the war and their displacement,” says Al Dali. 

“Our hope is to rebuild our training facilities, resume our training, and expand the team once the war is over,” he adds.   

Nearby, Sunbirds member Hazem Suleiman is busy moving, with the help of a crutch, from one tent to another delivering parcels. Like Alaa, his left leg was amputated after he was shot by Israeli snipers during the 2018 protests. According to a 2019 UN investigation, “81% of gunshots were to the legs of demonstrators, with 122 people having one or both legs amputated”.

Such traumatic injuries are now common in Gaza. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), at least 1,000 children there had lost one or two limbs by the end of November. 

For amputees like Hazem, the thought of losing more limbs haunts some of their missions. 

“During one of our aid missions east of Khan Younis, a site nearby was bombed,” he says. “We looked at each other asking: ‘Is it possible that we’d lose more limbs?’” The team brushed away the thought with gallows humour and continued their work amid the sound of shelling. 

Mobilising the international athletic community

Over in Europe, Gaza Sunbirds’ London-based co-founder Karim Ali coordinates the team and their campaigns internationally. These include the emergency aid appeal which has raised almost $245,000 (£194,000) to go towards aid. Additionally, he works on Sunbirds’ Athletes for Palestine campaign – which aims to rally support among the international sporting community – and the Great Ride of Return – solidarity cycles organized globally.

“We have received a lot of support and we’ve had more than 100 athletes sign up to our solidarity campaign, organising around 85 bike rides around the world,” he says. 

The team hopes to rebuild their sports centers and resume training once the war is over

The support of the athletic community has not only given the Sunbirds legitimacy as a team, but it has also helped them to tell their stories and motivate their aid relief efforts, according to Ali. 

“We believe in our dream to participate in sports competitions,” he says. “We believe it is our right. We sacrificed so much to get to the point where we are at.”

The team’s relentless efforts are beset by challenges. Navigating their own displacement, dwindling food supplies in the local market, and difficulty receiving money transfers, the team’s ability to provide humanitarian work is restricted, according to Gaza-based team coach Hassan Harb. 

Delivering aid on our bikes and walking with the help of a crutch is a message that life can go on

With people in Gaza unable to produce or import food, they rely heavily on aid entering the strip. However, international organisations and NGOs have only been able to provide limited aid relief, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Undeterred, the Gaza Sunbirds pedal on through adversity, an embodiment of human resilience. “This [resilience] is part of our humanitarian message,” says Dali.

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab

Main image: Alaa and Haitham, a Sunbirds teammate, prepare to deliver aid parcels on their bikes to IDP tents in Rafah, on February 1, 2024. Credit for all images: Mohamed Soleimane

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