Thursday, Jun. 6, 2024

A Long-Distance Friendship Brings The Story Of Palestinian Riding School Stateside

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In December 2023, Martha Figueroa was scrolling through news about the war in Gaza on Instagram when she paused on a memorial post for a Palestinian journalist. One photo showed the journalist in his press jacket; in the next, she saw the same man posing on horseback. For Figueroa, a lifelong rider, the scene sparked instant curiosity: There were equestrians in Gaza? And then concern: What had become of the riders and horses of Gaza since Oct. 7?

“If this man was riding for fun—for leisure—then there must have been a community of riders. There must have been schools, farms, facilities,” Figueroa said. “Horses take a community to care for—at least that’s my experience. So it got the gears turning.” 

Figueroa began experimenting with hashtags to unravel the story of equestrian life in Palestine’s Gaza Strip. She would search “#Gazahorsebackriders” and “#Palestinehorses,” tracing her way through tagged photos of overlapping landmarks and horses. She began to piece together that at the heart of Gaza’s horse community was a riding school. 

Finally, Figueroa landed on the account of the Aljawad Club. Diving into the school’s social media, she saw a program that looked remarkably like the Pony Club she grew up with across the world in Virginia. In photos and videos, families packed into the stands for show jumping classes, young students confidently explained riding fundamentals, and riders hacked horses in the sand at the nearby coastline. The most recent post invited women to take riding lessons at a discount for Breast Cancer Awareness month. 

Through photos posted to Aljawad Club’s social media, Martha Figueroa began to piece envision Palestine’s horse culture. Here, an Aljawad student poses with a lesson horse. Photos Courtesy Of Ahmed Al-Reefi

Figueroa also noticed, with worry, that that last post was dated Oct. 6. It was well into December by the time she discovered the account. She hit the follow button and turned on notifications for the club, wondering who, if anyone, was on the other side of the once active account.  

Finally, in February, she received a ping alerting her to an update from the Aljawad account, and she pulled up a video of children playing in the arena. “I saw it, and I cannot tell you what it felt like to realize that somebody who knew their story was OK—at least I hoped,” Figueroa said. “So I reached out, and that’s where this friendship started.”

On the other side of the thread, and a world apart, 28-year-old Ahmed Al-Reefi, was reminiscing over old videos from Aljawad Club when he decided to share on the nearly defunct account. Figueroa’s first message began what would become a daily correspondence with the club’s director. Over these texts (Al-Reefi does not speak English but writes English fluently), the two developed a friendship. 

For months, Figueroa had hoped for a fuller picture of the horse community she had come to imagine from old photos and posts. Through Al-Reefi, she gradually learned what the community had been, and its reality since that last post on Oct. 6, 2023. 

Aljawad Club: An Equestrian Oasis 

Al-Reefi began riding as a 10-year-old and quickly fell in love with show jumping, which took him to competitions throughout the region in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. When Al-Reefi, who communicated with the Chronicle through written messages due to the language barrier, took over the Aljawad Club in 2022, he envisioned a program that would meet the needs of riders from beginners to those with more competitive aspirations. He estimates that the school had between 250 and 300 students enrolled in its lesson program. 

“The students’ ages ranged from 6 to 18,” he said. “Some beginners and some advanced; all aspired to be great horsemen and spent time learning about horse health, anatomy, sport and psychology.”

Aljawad Club’s director Ahmed Al-Reefi celebrates a student’s win. “The first international championship held in Palestine under the supervision of International Equestrian Federation FEI was hosted on the club grounds,” he said.

But the three-acre facility wasn’t exclusive to equestrians. Al-Reefi envisioned Aljawad as a welcoming urban escape that would include riders’ families and the wider community, with a playground for younger siblings, pickleball and volleyball courts, and a ringside cafeteria serving Palestinian dishes.  

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Al-Reefi was also serious about breeding, and the school’s 36 horses included a range of lesson horses, along with local and imported stallions and mares he’d selected for their breeding potential. 

“They had everything from 2-year-olds to 20-year-old horses,” Figueroa said. “And much to my surprise—and maybe this is my own Westerner ignorance—is I was expecting to see a bunch of petite Arabian horses. That’s what I’ve learned is what is available there. But instead, Ahmed and his team were very carefully breeding sport horses; they were cross-breeding Thoroughbreds; they had foals already on the ground when October came around.”

Ahmed Al-Reefi grew up competing show jumpers throughout the Middle East. He became the director of the Aljawad Club in 2022 and expanded the mission of the club to include sport horse breeding.

For all the similarities that Figueroa began to notice between Al-Reefi’s program and American riding schools, she was also charmed by some of the differences. The large sand arena was the center of the grounds, where horses were often turned out together in large groups. 

“These horses liked to spend a lot of time together,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of photos and videos of the herd sharing the arena and getting some fun turnout time, just being very much a herd in a way that a lot of riding schools don’t do, because each horse is in their own little space, and they’re not allowed to look or touch with each other. To me it’s pretty incredible that horses of such varying calibers—different breeds and different ages—were all just very much a close-knit herd.”

The Aljawad staff was also quite close. “Our team spent sunrise to sunset together, spent holidays together and celebrated each other’s kids’ birthdays together at the barn. I [spoke] to them every day.” Al-Reefi said of his 20 employees. “We were living the most beautiful moments and the most beautiful family atmosphere.”

An Aljawad student flashes the “peace sign” while grazing a young horse ringside at sunset.

The Uncertain, But Hopeful, Future Of Aljawad Club 

When the conflict began in the fall, Aljawad Club, which is located in the northern part of Gaza, was immediately impacted by the violence. Three of the lesson ponies, Jasten, Adam and Aliaa, were fatally injured by shrapnel. Another gelding died with no apparent physical injuries, but from what Al-Reefi believes was the psychological stress from the volume and intensity of the nearby blasts. 

Al-Reefi and his staff continued to care for their remaining herd under these strained wartime conditions. He began giving his staff orders to top off grain and water at the end of every day, unsure how many more times they would be able to feed and water their animals. Grain deliveries had stopped, and Al-Reefi feared for the safety of his horses, and his students and employees. 

“Ahmed and his team continued to try to do their best to prepare for the worst,” Figueroa said. “He was driving his car and picking up grain and driving it back and forth from school. As you can imagine, 36 horses is not a few mouths to feed; that’s a substantial herd to care for.”

In early November, Al-Reefi left the barn to pick up grain, and on the return his worst fears were finally realized. An Israeli tank blocked the road between his car and the riding academy, and soldiers were turning the traffic around. He called his staff to ask them to top off grain and water one final time. 

“That’s the last he had eyes on his school,” Figueroa said. 

As Israeli troops pushed Gazans south, the community and staff that had supported Aljawad Club’s horses were forced to leave the animals behind.

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“The horses that remained there—at this point it’s been months. We don’t know the final fate of how long they survived before they starved,” Figueroa said. 

Al-Reefi was able to make it to safety in Turkey, but he hasn’t been able to get in touch with some of his staff since those early days of the war in November to check on their well being, as well as the horses’. He did learn, through video footage acquired by a news organization, that two of his horses had escaped their paddocks and were running through the streets of Gaza when they were shot down by Israeli tanks. Another of his horses, the sire of his beloved gelding, was found to have traveled to the far north and ended up in the care of a friend, injured but alive. 

“Unfortunately, at that point, news had come out that funding for [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency] was going to be discontinued due to the accusations that UNRWA was somehow involved in October 7,”  Figueroa said. “Things in the north of Gaza [became] a much more desperate situation. Meaning that that horse, faced with not being able to save him from his injuries, was sacrificed and used to provide food for the families up north.” 

The violent deaths of his horses and his separation from the herd has been “unbearable,” Al-Reefi said. Recently, he learned through aerial photographs of the area that the riding club has been flattened. For most, the abrupt and horrific destruction of the Aljawad Club and its herd—within the wider uncertainty, displacement and despair of Palestinians in Gaza—would be the end of hope. But Al-Reefi isn’t most. 

Two Aljawad riders pose with a lesson horse. Ahmed Al-Reefi hopes to rebuild the farm as a place for the community to heal.

“Somehow, he is as hopeful as ever,” Figueroa said of the tone of their exchanges. “I’ll admit that I really, really admire that. Most conversations now are simply focused on what the club will look like, again, what kind of programs he wants to offer, again.”

Figueroa has set up a GoFundMe on Al-Reefi’s behalf, where donations will support the rebuilding of northern Gaza’s beloved riding school. Inspired by Al-Reefi and his impossible optimism, Figueroa continues to act as a champion for the school, sharing the story of both its joys and its losses online, to the media, and at educational events. 

“What I noted to [Al-Reefi] was that the school itself has so many beautiful memories, but that, perhaps, in the same way that it was an oasis in an urban area, its stories are kind of insulated as well,” Figueroa said. “The idea came about to shed some light and maybe offer a spotlight; I started to talk about it Stateside.”

Al-Reefi hopes that talking about what happened to Aljawad Club will help the world to see the value of what has been lost and to support the rebuilding of the facility and herd. 

“My hope is that I will see my friends again, and that our dedicated staff will have their livelihoods back,” he said. “We will have a herd again and carry forth equestrian culture in Gaza. I hope to paint the names of the horses we lost across the walls of the future barn, so that we can honor them. The next chapter will be incredibly hard, but I know that with the support of the international horse community, nothing is impossible.”

At the riding school, Al-Reefi had hosted some therapeutic riding lessons and special events for children with autism. According to UNICEF, there are more than a thousand child amputees in Gaza; Al-Reefi believes that in the next chapter of Aljawad, the school could play a part in bringing hope to children with life-changing injuries and loss. 

“The riding school will be an oasis from pain,” he said. “Not only for those facing personal loss, but anyone who will be affected with psychological distress and physical trauma. Before the club was destroyed, we had started a program in partnership with [a] local organization for children with mental and physical disabilities. Our future school will be a place where people facing the toll of war will come to heal with the greatest medicine: horses.”

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