Chicago, United States – Palestinian-American Rashad Darwish was producing a show called Runners Ultimate Network when he noticed how many people were running in marathons as teams for different charities.
Darwish had competed in numerous marathons throughout his life and it was at the Iron Man Triathlon in 2009 when an idea came to him.
“I realised crossing the finish line was not enough,” Darwish told Al Jazeera. “I thought to myself, the time has come to finish with a purpose.”
“Rush”, as he is nicknamed by friends, started thinking about entering the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, one of the nation’s most prestigious races – but this time, as part of a team and for a cause.
“I always wanted to do something for Palestine to help the Palestinians and to help Americans better understand our cause,” Rush said. “In 2009, I had attended a fundraiser for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund [PCRF] and it hit me that I should organise a team, and we would run to raise funds for Palestinian children through the PCRF.”
Since 2009, Team Palestine has raised more than $400,000 for the PCRF.
As Rush and his team prepared for the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, growing clashes across the occupied West Bank between Israeli forces, settlers, and Palestinians have heightened tensions.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict touches Rush, whose family immigrated to Chicago in 1972 from their small village outside of Ramallah called Beitin.
“As a team we know we can’t change the political climate in Palestine or in the Middle East. But what we can do is raise funds for doctors to go into the occupied territories and provide medical care for the children. In many ways, PCRF is the only path to their prosperity,” said Rush.
Rush turned to his family and brothers and launched Team Palestine for PCRF to run in the annual Chicago Marathon, which first launched in 1977. Rush set his sights on the 2010 marathon, putting together a team of 10 runners.
“I was amazed that as we ran people were cheering us saying, ‘Go Palestine’. People were coming up to us asking ‘What is Palestine?’ Here I was trying to raise money for the PCRF, but in reality, we were doing even more – raising public awareness for Palestine,” said Rush.
The marathon eventually recognised Team Palestine as an official entry and this year reserved 55 pre-registered numbers for the group.
PCRF President Steve Sosebee said he is grateful to Rush and all the Team Palestine volunteers for their efforts.
“The usual methods of raising funds to support our work here in Palestine – such as gala events, campaigns – are great. But this offers people a way to also get healthy and share in an experience, while at the same time, knowing that every mile they run saves a child,” Sosebee told Al Jazeera.
“The huge amount of money they have raised enables us to provide urgent medical care for sick and injured kids all over the Middle East for free.”
Sosebee said similar marathon teams also called “Team Palestine” are currently forming in major US cities like Seattle, San Diego, and Dallas, noting the concept has also spread to cities around the world including South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
Lama Abusharif, race coordinator for Team Palestine in Chicago and a marathon participant, said there is nothing like the feeling of running for charity and having strangers cheer you on.
“It was impressive; more than 40,000 people all trying to make it past all those miles. The Chicago Marathon completely shuts down the centre of the city of Chicago for more than half a day … Strangers would see our team shirts and cheer us on by saying ‘Go Team Palestine’ or ‘Viva la Palestine’. I couldn’t help but tear up when I heard them,” Abusharif told Al Jazeera.
Rush knows not everyone can run a marathon – a race of 42.8 kilometres.
This past September, Team Palestine helped organise a shorter “Run for Peace” in Chicago that featured a 5km track and a category of “walkers” who tackle a distance of 1.6km.
“Not everyone runs,” Rush said. “It’s not easy.”
More than 1,000 people registered in “Run for Peace” as runners and walkers. There were many attendees and it took on a day-long, festival-like atmosphere with organisers handing out Middle Eastern food and featuring tables set up by many American-Palestinians, Arab, and Muslim organisations.
“Run for Peace” coordinator Colin McCarthy, who works with Rush and Team Palestine, said he had never run a race or marathon before.
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“I run for Team Palestine because … I can bring attention to a need that requires support. We inform people of what is really happening around the world. We excite people to ask questions, learn more, and join the cause,” McCarthy told Al Jazeera.
Their success at the Chicago Marathon and in other races has also inspired Team Palestine to enter the 4th Annual Palestine International Marathon-themed Right to Movement in Bethlehem.
“When I was young, I remember my dad and his generation always asking themselves: ‘How do we get the younger generation involved in doing something for Palestine?’ It was a good question,” Rush recalled.
“I think the most exciting thing about running the Chicago Marathon and other races is that we are able to get young Palestinians and American Arabs to become engaged. That’s also an exciting result of all this.”