This Bedouin-Israeli Tennis Coach Wants to Serve a Bigger Purpose for Her Community

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Posted on: 05/20/2024

At 26, Shuruq Swaed Salem had never played tennis. Before she turned 30, she was the deputy director of a unique sports center bringing together Israeli children of all religions

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan this spring was marred by fears of violence in Israel as the war in Gaza entered its sixth month. That gloomy prediction didn’t come true; in fact, something positive happened, at least in the Druze town of Sajur in the Galilee.

At the local branch of the Israel Tennis and Education Centers, the Ramadan meal was shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews, most of them parents of girls and boys who train there.

“It was a special evening; there were almost a hundred of us around the table,” says Shuruq Swaed Salem, the Sajur branch’s deputy director. “Someone from the Druze community told me, ‘We train all over the place, but this is the first time we felt we really belonged.’

“A Christian woman said to me, ‘We don’t celebrate the holiday, but here we feel like we belong because it’s more than just tennis.’ A mother from the Muslim community said it was worth leaving her husband at home and coming here.”

The “more than just tennis” feeling has a lot to do with Swaed Salem, who is 30. “My story is a special one. At the center, we try to get the kids involved with tennis at an early age, but I only started playing at 26,” she says. Swaed Salem was born in a nearby Bedouin village, where she grew up playing sports and still lives. “I’m always moving, I never sit still,” she says.

After high school, she studied physical education and won certification as a fitness and TRX – total-body resistance exercise – instructor from the Wingate Institute’s Haifa branch. She applied to become a sports teacher for young children at the Sajur center but wasn’t accepted.

A year later, she applied again, this time for a position that includes working with at-risk girls and children with special needs. This time she made the cut and started working at the center.

She was asked to teach tennis, a sport she had never played. “It’s a sport I never thought about,” she says.

Alam Ibrahim, the director of the Sajur center, spotted her potential and sent her on a six-month teacher-training course. “I thought it was a bit strange to start playing tennis at 26, but I love challenges,” she says. While on the course, she became a student of the game and began teaching it at the center to kids age 4 to 7.

She says that tennis “is a sport built on personal abilities; you feel how much it influences and shapes your personality. There’s something very direct about tennis – what you put in is what you get back.

“I have to believe in myself and not trust somebody to do the work for me. It was different from anything I’d known. The center also helped build my connection to tennis, because it’s a place that gives and embraces you. I felt that they saw how much I was putting in, that what I was doing was appreciated. And that made me stronger.”


Drugs and violence

Working with at-risk girls also gave Swaed Salem a chance to develop. “I felt close to at-risk girls, maybe because the age difference wasn’t so big,” she says. “I quickly realized that simply being honest with them, speaking with them informally without keeping a distance was enough to create a connection.”

But she also consulted with social workers, and read up on teaching methods and the girls’ backgrounds. Some of them didn’t live at home; all came from families where violence and/or drugs played a role, or with one parent absent, sometimes even in prison.

“We quickly realized that the goal was to give them tools to compete on the court – and in life,” Swaed Salem says. “The power of tennis as an individual sport, and of the center as a place of community, makes it possible for the girls to develop independence and boost their self-esteem. Tennis is also a sport that lets you burn off stress, and I saw this benefiting the girls.” 

One of the girls came from a difficult home and was ostracized at school – challenges that were reflected in her grades.

“Through tennis practice and group activities, we worked with her on resilience – we helped her believe in herself despite the difficulties and disappointments,” Swaed Salem says.

“She received a warm embrace from the center and felt like she belonged. Over time you could see the impact on her grades, and the sense that she could cope with something that used to seem impossible. Today she’s a completely different girl – strong and able to appreciate herself.

There’s also the issue of setting an example; some of the girls even come from Swaed Salem’s village. “I wanted them to look at me and not hesitate to try to achieve their goals. … Some of them took everything linked to the sport really seriously, but they also did this when it came to helping younger children,” she says.

In light of the project’s success, Swaed Salem and the center are considering working with the girls for another year, on top of a new cohort coming in.

“They apply what they learn with us and see the results, and that motivates them to continue working hard,” she says. “These girls will grow up to be mothers and give their children a better and more stable environment than the one they received.”

Swaed Salem found an even greater challenge working with children with special needs. “It was a challenge because everything was new to me: the sport, intensive work with children, especially children with special needs, each of whom needs personal attention,” she says. “And it takes time to get to know them, establish a relationship and set boundaries.” 

One experience stood out. “I was heavily pregnant, and one of the girls came running up to me and hugged me tightly, so tight that it hurt and she had to be pulled away.

“I remember all the emotions I felt at that moment. I was scared by the pain … but I also felt how much she missed me, because I had already started maternity leave, and that made me happy. This mix of emotions was something I often felt working with this special group.”Success helped build the center’s membership numbers, and Swaed Salem was appointed early childhood coordinator. When she returned from maternity leave in January 2023, she was promoted to deputy director.

“After the success with the little ones, the director told me that a management course was opening and he saw me as a key figure capable of taking responsibility and getting things moving. As a coach I didn’t see what happens behind the scenes; I thought things worked out by themselves,” she says.”But the new role requires a broader vision: both strategic thinking – how to recruit more kids, motivate the team, improve things that aren’t working well enough – and how to provide solutions in real time, pay attention and reach out. This is critical because we’re talking mainly about children.”She says the center is like a second home for her. A few months after she started working there, her niece was killed in a car accident.

“I was in a difficult mental state and don’t have the words to describe how the center embraced me, supported me and gave me the feeling that the most important thing was for me to rest and recover,” she says.”After a month, I went back to work and said to myself, ‘I’m giving my all to this place,’ and I pass this feeling on to the children and the parents. Parents know they don’t need to go to the director, because I’m always in direct contact with them.”A place on the map

Swaed Salem also leads or at least takes part in other projects such as a program for children with weight problems. Their sports activities are accompanied by a nutritionist and trainers.

There’s also a program for cultivating young leaders in the country’s outskirts initiated by retired tennis player Andy Ram; the program promotes children playing competitive sports. Other events include the Ramadan meal and a competition called “Violence against Women Is Out,” where participants from around the country take part. 

“I was very moved by the competition,” Swaed Salem says. “Violence against women is a major issue in the Arab community, and I think the fact that we dedicated the competition to this issue sends a message to the boys and girls who train with us.”

Tennis has never been a popular sport in the Arab community.

“It’s really new to us as a society. For example, for the first time, 12 Bedouin girls are training at our center. Tennis has only recently become popular in our area, but this isn’t surprising because girls here today make sure to play sports and keep a healthy lifestyle. … I’m glad we’re seeing more young people here at the center – Druze, Bedouin, Muslims, Christians, especially girls.”

According to Swaed Salem, people from further-flung communities now come to the center, even a village that’s a 40-minute drive away. 

“A few days ago we reached a record of about 100 graduates, and I don’t take that for granted,” she says. “I think tennis is becoming a major sport in Arab society, and in the future we’ll be on the map.”

What are your dreams. Where do you plan to be on the map?

“I always think I have a lot to learn, and when I fulfill a dream, I’m already thinking about my next dream. I aspire to be the first Bedouin director so that the center will grow and there will be more students – and graduates, because they’re the ones who influence the little ones the most.

“In general, my dream is for more people to know what tennis is and what can be achieved through it. And I want to contribute and nurture more Bedouin women directors who will be partners in building a new generation of students.”

Swaed Salem believes in starting to play as young as age 4, “because you work with them on the entire infrastructure of the game, but no less on the values that go with the sport. Tennis is an individual sport, but you learn to respect your opponent, to accept successes and losses, to follow the rules.

“A coach who’s now working with a group of 8-year-olds I coached before him told me, ‘This is the first group to come prepared. They know how to stand on the line, they know where to put the racket when training starts, they know the rules and they’re ready.’ When I think about where we started and where they’ve reached, it makes me want to come back and coach.”