Algeria reportedly cancels soccer match with Ghana because of Israeli coach

Don’t hate the player, hate the Jewish coach, might be Algeria’s sports motto.

Algeria’s soccer team is reportedly pulling out of a friendly match with Ghana because they have an Israeli head coach, according to the Times of Israel reporting from Ghanaian media.

According to the report, the Algerian team canceled the match scheduled for September to ensure that Avram Grant did not step foot in their country, which could potentially infuriate the Algerian people who embrace a pro-Palestinian agenda.

Algerian journalist Ayman Gada posted to Facebook that “the Algerian national team canceled the friendly match because it refused to host Ghana’s Israeli coach,” the Times of Israel said.

Grant, a veteran coach of the English soccer team Chelsea, has been coaching the West African nation’s team for the past two years.

MKI: Mending kids in need

There was a 3 percent chance that the mole on 16-year-old Jacob Rubio’s forehead, which he had had since birth, might turn cancerous. When his mother, Juliann Castillo, noticed some lumps in it, she grew worried and requested a surgery to have it removed.

But Medi-Cal considered the procedure cosmetic and denied it, and Castillo, who is on disability, could not afford to pay for it herself, she said.

Then, on July 20, Jacob received the surgery he needed at no cost, thanks to a collaboration between the Burbank-based nonprofit Mending Kids International (MKI) and Cedars-Sinai. He was one of 18 children who benefited from surgeons who volunteered their time and $50,000 in donations for supplies.

Called a “hometown mission,” because it took place in the United States — MKI usually transports doctors abroad — this event served both domestic and international patients. MKI flew kids in from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala and Kenya to undergo procedures at Cedars. 

MKI Executive Director Marchelle Sellers said the organization, which provides surgeries to children worldwide and has in the past brought foreign children to Cedars for treatment, had been questioned in the past about not helping kids in the United States who also need help.

“When we started looking around, we realized that was true. Kids were falling through the cracks,” she said. 

It’s hard to deny the need, even for some families who have insurance. One family helped by the inaugural hometown mission was unable to pay the $5,000 deductible required before their insurance would cover a procedure.

Children from other countries generally are referred to the program by parents, missionaries or visiting medical professionals. During their time in the Los Angeles area, the children stayed with host families who accompanied them to appointments and cared for them before and after their procedures, which were either cosmetic or urological.

Jacob and his mother, who live in Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County, were driven to the surgery and necessary appointments by an MKI sponsor, who helped them through the entire surgical process.

Dr. David Kulber, director of Cedars’ Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and a volunteer with the hometown mission, said the event was partly to give MKI donors a chance to see the organization in action. He called his work with MKI and other charitable foundations “the most gratifying thing I have done as a physician.”

Kulber said one of the biggest challenges is gaining the trust of children from other countries who may be experiencing culture shock after coming to the United States to receive their surgeries. 

“That’s the real challenge … to get them to trust you,” he said. “It’s really about building trust with the child.

“The beauty of medicine is we all speak the same language: It’s about the human body and how to fix it. … [This] trumps any other cultural differences we may have.”

Kulber belongs to Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and believes that his Jewish background has affected his medical philosophy.

“Treating everyone equally without any prejudice is a lot of what Judaism is about,” he said.

Although MKI provides all kinds of surgeries, including cardiac and craniofacial, the July 20 event focused on cosmetic and urological outpatient procedures. Performing these surgeries in the context of MKI can present challenges. 

Dr. Andrew Freedman, director of pediatric urology at Cedars, said many urological procedures traditionally depend on having access to a catheter. If those will not be available to children when they return to other countries, then he must arrange for their drainage to be different. 

“You’re relying on people who work in a very different system. … We can’t put them in a situation where, if something goes wrong, they will get really sick right away.” 

Freedman said he is grateful that MKI is generally “very sensitive” to follow-up issues and he looks forward to more such missions in the future.

“Helping complete strangers from the other side of the world … is very consistent with your Jewish values,” he said. “We hope this becomes a recurring event.”

The procedures may be cosmetic, but many of them will have enormous impacts on children’s lives. One patient could not move an arm because of contractures from burn scars. One boy, who is returning for his second surgery with MKI, had tumors removed from his hands so that he could regain some use of his fingers. 

The tumors and lumps removed from patients often were uncomfortable rather than dangerous, but as in Jacob’s case, the lumps must be removed and biopsied to know for sure.

Addelyn Del Cid, a 6-month-old dressed in pink and sparkling dot earrings, was brought by her family to remove a lump on her leg. Follow-up tests determined that she has a rare condition that currently poses no threat. The family said they would have been unable to afford the procedure otherwise.

The benefits of an MKI procedure can transcend the medical results. 

“We have a boy coming in who has a mass growing on [his] ear, but he is going into kindergarten. … His mom is just desperate for someone to remove it so he does not have to face a childhood of bullying,” MKI’s Sellers said. “Literally an hour in the operating room is the difference between having a normal childhood and one that would be filled with constant teasing.”

Such was the case with Jacob.

“He got bullied a lot,” his mother said, remembering classmates and even family members taunting him about his birthmark.

Castillo is glad that she will not have to spend her entire life worrying that her son might be sick — the biopsy found that Jacob’s mole was benign.

“I am just grateful and blessed we [had] this opportunity,” Castillo said.

Israeli rescue team leaves for Ghana

A team of Israeli military experts left for Ghana in the wake of the collapse of a four-story shopping mall in the country's capital.

The delegation includes rescue engineers, medical personnel, and communication experts as well equipment specifically designed to rescue people trapped under the ruins.

The  team left from Israel's Nevatim Air Force base for Accra late Wednesday, hours after the building collapsed, leaving at least four dead, dozens injured and others believed to be trapped in the rubble.

A Magen David Adom team was scheduled to leave Thursday for Accra with plans to set up a field hospital.

The happy mystery that is Ghana

In the village of Anloga, Ghana, where I stayed for three weeks this summer, when someone dies people gather in the streets and they dance.  Some wear red and black, considered mourning colors, and along with dancing they sing, and they eat.  Some of the funeral festivities last for days, filled with merriment and jubilation.

I first encountered a funeral while riding in a car down a main road.  People were crowded alongside the street and even in the road itself. They blasted music and howled out of car windows as we drove through the exuberant mayhem.

We asked what they were celebrating. When we were informed it was a funeral and not a wedding or some other happy occasion, we were completely perplexed.  But then it made perfect sense: after two weeks of being there, we finally realized that happiness is the Ghanaian approach to life.

When I was faced with the decision of how to spend my summer, I saw a world of possibilities—literally. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to several places with my family, so I wanted to go someplace unlike anywhere I’d ever been.  What immediately popped into my head was the polar opposite of the breezy palm trees and balmy weather of Beverly Hills – Africa.

A group called Global Leadership Adventures offered a community service trip that focused on African children, and it also offered the opportunity to learn about Ghanaians’ culture and lifestyle.  It ended up being enough to give me a sense of their life, but not all the mysteries of their culture could be solved.

Funerals are only one example of the multitude of differences between Ghanaian culture and Western culture. Buildings there are mostly one-story and made of concrete blocks or mud, with either tin or thatched roofs.  Fences are hand-woven palm fronds, and except for the one paved road we drove on during a three-hour trip from the airport, the ground was all dirt and sand.

Christianity is practiced as the main religion, but there were also several traditional, idol-worshiping religions.  The traditional religions use shrines and make sacrifices to idols.

Known for their history of being sold in the slave trade, Ghanaians work hard to honor their ancestors.  With several slave forts still intact and used as museums, they educate and inform the public without any bitterness over this horrifying past.  As an American tourist, I felt more uncomfortable and ashamed about the topic than did any Ghanaian I met.

In fact, over the course of my three weeks there, I observed that even in such deprived conditions, people are able to live as contently as if they had all they needed in the world, even though they’re only getting by on $1.25 a day.

Ghana is an oasis of stability amid a desert of unrest—Burkina Faso and Mali to the north, Cote D’Ivoire to the west, and Togo to the east are all known for ongoing civil war and extreme poverty. Because of its neighborhood, Ghana is often assumed to be the same.  But life there is not as unfavorable as people perceive it to be.

In 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan colony to gain independence and become a country.  It has had its ups and downs, but is now a stable democracy.

Though it is considered a third-world country, it’s developing quickly—the per capita income (how much an average person earns annually) has progressively risen since 1983 and is now at an all time high of $402.30, according to the World Bank.  Still, it’s a pittance compared to the U.S., where the average per capita income is $48,100, or Israel, where it is $31, 005.

The easygoing outlook expressed in their funerals clearly translates into Ghanaians’ everyday actions as well.  Anywhere we went, people would wave and smile at us, and exclaim, “Mia woezo!” welcoming us in their local language, Ewe (pronounced eh-way).

My program was made up of nine teenagers, five Americans from California and Oregon, and one each from Spain, France, Switzerland and Lebanon.  We came from different backgrounds but we all wanted the same thing—to help.

Every weekday, we volunteered at a local basic school, building bricks and teaching kindergarteners. Brickmaking is grueling and labor-intensive, involving manually mixing cement and sand, then packing the bricks into molds and carefully easing them out while keeping them intact.

We were able to work through it because the bricks would build a room to replace the thatch-roofed, palm frond-walled hut that served as the school’s cafeteria.  Each morning we were greeted with wide smiles and keen eyes from children who were wearing the same threadbare uniform they’d worn all week.

Forty kids ages five and six were divided into two classes and sat in one concrete-walled classroom.  Cracked cement floors and creaking, peeling, wooden chairs scraped against one another as the children stood up to welcome us each day.

We walked around the room, checking that they were writing down the letters of the alphabet correctly on their scraps of lined paper.  They sat in their seats, eagerly anticipating our approval and maybe even a high five (or two!) if they had earned it.  That was all it took to put an ear-to-ear grin on their faces.

At another place we visited, called New Seed International, an orphanage and school for kids infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, the kids reacted the same way.  They jumped up and down and screamed with joy when we took pictures of them, regardless of their condition.

We also met the eight young boys of Father’s House, a home that fosters boys who used to work as child slaves on the Volta River.  It didn’t even register that I was in the presence of former child slaves who had endured such horrifying, deadly conditions —they were real, but they were as cheery and carefree as any other kid I’ve met.

Excitement and enthusiasm are also evident in their attitude towards religion.  About 69 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, and religion is such a major part of their lives that the topic would come up in every conversation with a Ghanaian about their culture. They were always quick to talk about how much their religion meant to them.

There are also Ghanaians who are Muslim, and others who practice traditional pagan religions.  We visited shrines on a small island to learn more about their beliefs.  The shrines — small, open-faced mud rooms with thatched roofs — looked like sets from a horror movie, with idols the size of small people stuck with knives, and blood – according to our guide, from animal sacrifices — splattered around.

In Ghana, there is no such thing as not having a religion. When I told people I was Jewish, they asked me lots of questions, and when they found out that we believe in the Torah – their Old Testament—they approved.   What was harder for them was when some of the teens on my program told them they didn’t identify with any religion at all – the Ghanaians were surprised, and asked how it was possible to live a life without faith.

Ghanaians also express their vitality by means of color.  All around the streets are women dressed in brightly patterned fabrics sold in the markets. The colors of their national flag have symbolic meaning, as I learned from a Ghanaian friend, Faustina, an 18-year-old girl who worked at our home base, helping out with the laundry.

In the flag, Faustina said, red represents the blood shed in Ghana’s struggle for independence. Yellow is for the gold the country has that gave it its nickname “the Gold Coast,” and green symbolizes the country’s rich vegetation.

A black star in the center represents their dark skin, in which they have much pride. In fact, during my time in Africa I was the most aware of the color of my skin that I’ve ever been.  It didn’t occur to me before I arrived how impossible it would be to blend in.  With light skin, everyone knew that we were foreigners, but I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome because of it.

I did feel guilty and ashamed, though, when we visited slave forts, where Ghanaian men, women and children were held in prisons until they were sold.  We saw one in Keta, just 20 minutes from Anloga, built by the Danes in the 18th century, and also the famous Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, about seven hours away to our  west. Seeing the cramped living quarters — hundreds, sometimes thousands of slaves were kept in a room smaller than Shalhevet’s Bet Midrash – left us unnerved.

The Ghanaians never seemed to resent us for what our ancestors had done.  They still welcomed us warmly.  But in spite of the bright sunlight and lively conversation, the forts made us uncomfortable.

Although the Ghanaians we met seemed happy enough to have us there, I often wondered if they thought it was intrusive and meddlesome of us to come to their country to help.  I tried to put myself in their shoes—or rather, in their bare feet — and I guessed that like anyone, they were not about to reject assistance.

I asked Mercy, the program’s cook, and Lamisi, a laundry assistant, whether they’d ever been to the U.S.  They looked at me as if I were crazy, then laughed.  When I asked where they had been, Mercy said she’d been to the neighboring countries of Togo and Benin, while Lamisi had never left Ghana.

When I asked if they had any desire to go to the U.S., they gave a shrug and said that there was no reason to go, because they had everything they needed right there in Ghana.

It’s baffling to me that the Ghanaians I met could be so content and satisfied with their lives when most of them have practically nothing.  Coming from a city where people get BMWs for their 16th birthday, dream of travel and careers in fashion or Hollywood, and think a lot about having the newest technology, their lack of material concerns was difficult to fathom.  They don’t have the same opportunities, ambitions, or material things, yet they’re content.

After weeks of brick building, playing with kids, eating their local cuisine, and seeing all I’d seen, I was left wondering: what do Ghanaians dream of?  Clearly it’s not iPhones and fashion shows.  What do they aspire to become, and what fulfills them?  And what would it take for an American teenager to find out?

I asked questions, but politeness trumped my curiosity.  It wasn’t awkward, I just didn’t know enough about the culture to know what was acceptable to ask.  All I could do was witness it for myself and recognize the differences.

I now understand that the spectrum of cultures in the world is still as large and diverse as the world itself, and no matter how much time one spends with a foreign culture, it might not be enough time to understand them completely.  While I was able to get a sense of what life was like for the average Ghanaian, I didn’t get much depth.

Maybe that day when we learned about Ghanaian funeral festivities, what we actually came to understand was that we didn’t, in fact, understand.  Perhaps three weeks couldn’t solve the mystery that is Ghanaian culture.  For the nine Western teenagers living in Anloga for the summer, Ghana will remain a happy mystery, a set of questions with answers obvious only to them.

Ghana’s plight motivates rabbinical students

The dirt streets and makeshift shacks of Ghana may seem an unlikely place to learn to be a rabbi, but not for a group of students who recently visited the African country.

Twenty-five rabbinical students, including a few from American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, came away from the trip with an understanding of AIDS in Africa — and the poverty that has helped turn the disease into an epidemic on the continent. Participants say the experience left a deep impression on them and convinced them of the need to do more to stop the spread of AIDS.

“I can’t teach a lesson about poverty, I can’t teach a lesson about tzedakah [charity] without drawing on this experience,” said tour participant Dan Kaiman, 23, of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. “Because it’s part and parcel of so many of the tikkun olam — the repairing the world issues — that we deal with on a daily basis.”

The students visited Ghana for 10 days in January on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which supports the removal of restrictions from U.S. world AIDS policies, such as an abstinence-until-marriage earmark or an anti-prostitution pledge.

The students learned how desperate poverty contributes to the spread of AIDS in Africa when they visited a refugee camp in Ghana, where residents live in concrete-block houses on dirt streets, unable to find legal work because of their alien status.

Liberian refugees living in the camp told the rabbinical students some young mothers are forced to work as prostitutes to feed their children, often becoming infected with HIV as a result.

“The poverty was just something on a scale that I couldn’t quite imagine, living in Los Angeles my whole life,” said tour participant Adam Greenwald, 23, a student at AJU.

“To imagine if the choice is feeding your children today or a health risk down the road, I do certainly understand how a person could make the choice that they simply need to provide food for their family,” Greenwald said.

The students stayed in an area of Ghana called Hohoe, where they met with a Cuban doctor sent by his government to serve the country. The doctor, who is one of only a handful of licensed doctors in the area, explained that he sometimes diagnoses a dozen cases of HIV infection each week, said tour participant Joshua Corber, 25, of AJU.

The students also got an introduction to another side of health care in Ghana when they visited a healing clinic in a village near Hohoe, where patients with broken bones were bandaged with herbs, students said.

Chickens roamed the clinic’s dirt floors, and saws for amputations were among the few pieces of medical equipment on hand, students said.

An herbal healer at the clinic gave a disconcerting response when asked what he does to prevent HIV infection, Greenwald said.

“He said after each amputation he purchased a new saw,” Greenwald said.

For Corber, the tour revealed the social stigma that people with HIV encounter in Ghana.

“Nobody wants to admit that they have it, because basically the fear is and the reality is that they will be ostracized from the village, the community and their family,” Corber said. “And then they really will have no support at all.”

An estimated 2.2 percent of adults in Ghana had HIV or AIDS in 2006, which is relatively low for Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for one-third of all the world’s new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The rabbinical students who toured Ghana saw measures that are being taken in the African country to prevent the spread of HIV.

At the refugee camp for Liberians who have fled the civil wars in their home country, a bowl of free condoms was set outside the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kaiman said. The camp was near Accra, the capital of the country.

And at the office of an AIDS-fighting group in Hohoe, the rabbinical students played the part of audience members, as a group of local teens put on a play about resisting the peer pressure to have sex at a young age. The teens present the play at schools in Ghana, as a way to educate youths to avoid HIV infection.

Corber, Greenwald and Kaiman, who all attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, said their tour of Ghana left a deep impression on them.

“It certainly opened my eyes,” said Kaiman, who grew up in New Jersey. “Africa isn’t something far away and distant anymore. It’s something very personal, and it’s something that you can’t avoid.”

Since returning to the United States, Kaiman has given a presentation about his Ghana experience at a synagogue, and he has contacted his representative in congress and members of the House Foreign Relations Committee to call for changes to the president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Corber, who grew up in Vancouver, Canada, said that after having seen the work that New York-based AJWS is doing in Africa, he is convinced that a little money goes a long way in Africa. That’s especially the case when the money goes to groups such as AJWS that work with established organizations in the developing world, Corber said.

Greenwald said the experience reinforced his own core beliefs.

“The core of my religious commitment is the idea that all human beings are children of a single God,” he said. “And if a large chunk of those human beings are sick and dying, then those are not others — there are no others — those are brothers and sisters and cousins who are my responsibility.”

Ghanaian Kicks It Up for Israel Fans

World Cup viewers were confronted with more than one big surprise on Saturday when Ghana defeated the Czech Republic 2-0 in what was perhaps the greatest upset of the tournament so far. The second shocker came when Ghanaian defender John Pantsil pulled an Israeli flag out of his sock during Ghana’s celebrations of its two goals.

The gesture has been greeted by an array of reactions all over the world. While some call Pantsil, a religious Christian, a hero, others say he acted with na?veté and foolishness.

But Pantsil, who isn’t Israeli, told one Israeli sports Web site that his actions were motivated by good-hearted intentions: “I love the fans in Israel. I have played at Hapoel [Haifa] and Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the fans always made me happy so I wanted to make them happy.”

Pantsil is one of three Ghanaian players who play in the Israeli Premier League.

The Ghanaian Football Association issued an apology on Monday in response to outrage in the Arab world caused by Pantsil’s action: “He is obviously unaware of the implications of what he did. He’s unaware of international politics,” Randy Abbey, spokesman of the Ghanaian FA, said at a press conference.

“We apologize to anybody who was offended and we promise that it will never happen again. He did not act out of malice for the Arab people or in support of Israel. He was naïve.”

But FIFA, the organization that runs the World Cup, said that it had no problem with Pantsil’s actions.

Meanwhile, Israeli Sports Minister Ofir Pines-Paz has been quoted as saying, “We have an Israeli at the World Cup. Pantsil’s gesture has warmed our hearts and many Israelis have now become supporters of Ghana.”