RAMALLAH, April 29 (JMCC) - Nestled deep in the foothills of the West Bank
, between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah
, lies the picturesque village of Turmus Ayya
Visitors that make their way through the town lined with palm trees can find a hidden gem built into the hillside, the Turmus Ayya Equestrian Club, established in 2007.
Although not the first equestrian club in the occupied Palestinian territories -- one was founded by leader Yasser Arafat
in the city of Jericho
-- the Turmus Ayya Club is dedicated to the mission of providing affordable access to horses for all Palestinians.
“This sport is recognized as the most expensive sport worldwide, but we didn’t want to have this idea here. We wanted to make it available for everybody,” says owner and founder, Ashraf Rabi.
Rabi, 44, was born in Turmus Ayya but left for Panama at the age of 16, where he eventually made his way to the United States. A lifelong obsession with horses led him to dream of one day returning to his homeland and building a house with a stable full -- something he would fulfill in 2000.
“Since I was a kid, I loved horses. When I was like six or seven years old and the man would come to work the land with his horse every year, I would go follow him, missing school to go with him just so I could have a chance to ride.”
After returning to Turmus Ayya, Rabi noticed the local children made frequent visits to his house to see and ride the horses. He built the Equestrian Club to provide the children with ready access, because it was something he had not enjoyed in his own youth.
“People come from all over the West Bank,” says Khaled Al-Frangi, a trainer at the club. “They come from Jerusalem
, Ramallah, Nablus -- even Palestinians from Israel make their way here.”
ON THE WORLD STAGE
Al-Frangi, 25, has been riding horses for ten years and was a member of the Palestinian National Jumping Team, which competes in regional competitions.
“When we are competing at any place outside of the country, when they see us riding they are impressed that we really know how to ride,” says Al-Frangi. “They ask how we can ride the way we do without having anything in Palestine.”
Al-Frangi says Palestinians are currently at a major disadvantage on the world stage. They lack proper funding and cannot even bring their own horses to competitions because it is too difficult to transport animals through Israeli customs. Wherever the riders go, host countries provide them with horses for the competitions.
“It is very difficult to compete against rich countries in the Gulf when you are not even riding your own horses,” laments Al-Frangi. “My dream is to compete in the Olympics and be in a good position with the other Arab countries.”
This is one reason why Ashraf Rabi believes his mission is so important. He wants to see Palestinians, especially his own students, competitive on the international level.
“Businesswise, there is no money from this. Every month I have to put money from my own pocket just to cover the expenses. In the summertime we are ok but from November to February, I have to cover almost everything myself.”
Rabi, also has a horse farm in the United States where he breeds Arabian horses. In 2009, one of his horses was named the US and Canada Champion at the US-Egyptian Event in Kentucky. On display in his office are pictures of the horse draped in a Palestinian flag.
“This is part of the development of Palestine. Horses are a big part of our Arab culture and we must embrace it,” says Rabi.
Appreciation of the sport may be on the rise in Palestine. In 2009, Rabi organized an eleven-round competition held in Turmus Ayya called the Palestine Competition. Over 120 horses competed with 8,000 people in attendance, including members of the Palestinian Authority
The Turmus Ayya Equestrian Club offers lessons for as low as 50 shekels (approximately $13 USD). The club offers training in dressage and jumping, horse care and storage for private owners, and several programs including campouts and riding expeditions.
“A lot of people appreciate what I have done here,” he says. “When kids come here, it can change their lives.”
For more information on the Turmus Ayya Equestrian Club, visit www.palhorse.com