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Palestinian culture burns brightly in this soccer club in Chile

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Chile is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Middle East, numbering as many as half a million people. And at the heart of this community is the soccer club Deportivo Palestino. John Bartlett has the story.

JOHN BARTLETT, BYLINE: It's hot, bright and dusty down at the tiny municipal stadium Club Deportivo Palestino calls home. Here in Chile's capital, Santiago, 8,000 miles from Gaza, Palestine's cores and culture burn brightly. Fans have gathered on the concrete stands, washed with lime and baked by the sun to watch their team play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: The soccer club was founded more than a century ago by Palestinian migrants. Many arrived in Chile in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the area around Bethlehem, integrating quickly into Chilean society. The club is considered an unofficial Palestinian national team, with many of its players historically hailing from Chile's large diaspora. The team play in black, red, white and green with a map of Palestine - before the creation of Israel 75 years ago - emblazoned on the left sleeve. And their fans were keffiyehs, the black and white traditional scarves from Palestine.

The teams have just taken to the pitch. It's quite a subdued atmosphere here. There are only a few hundred people in attendance, despite the relative importance of the game. And each of the Palestino players has a mascot - a boy or a girl with them each wearing a keffiyeh, the scarves that have become so synonymous with support for the Palestinian cause here in Chile.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: Before kickoff, the players and supporters observe a minute's silence for the victims of the conflict in Gaza. Beside the tiny section of hardcore fans wearing keffiyehs, a section of seating has been cordoned off. On it, a banner reads, (speaking Spanish) - in memory of those who are no longer with us. The soccer club has long been a place for Chilean Palestinians to meet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: Its underlying message resonates wider too. Many Chileans with no connection to Palestine beyond sympathy for Palestinian rights have gravitated towards the club, including 29-year-old supporter Joel Sandoval.

JOEL SANDOVAL: For me, Palestino is Palestina. It's Palestine. I became a supporter when I started learning about the Palestinian cause.

BARTLETT: In the 11th minute of each game, the club's fans fall silent while a trumpeter plays "The Last Post."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTLETT: In 2014, the club replaced the number one on each shirt with the outline of Palestine, ahead of the foundation of Israel in 1948. It was fine for the gesture, but the two number ones have taken on poignancy for the supporters, leading to the 11th minute protest. They end by chanting, Gaza must resist, Palestine exists.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

BARTLETT: Nicolas Abusada is one of the club's 11 directors managing its social media and commercial activities.

NICOLAS ABUSADA: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: "We can win, lose or draw, but whatever happens, we need to have the flag up there in mind - the Palestinian flag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIMNO DE C.D. PALESTINO/C.D. PALESTINO ANTHEM")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Spanish).

BARTLETT: Since the war in Gaza flared up, the club have seen their shirt sales increase sixfold, with more than half sold abroad. The fans of Club Deportivo Palestino may be far from Palestine, but from the whitewashed concrete bleachers in the far corner of South America, they will continue to make their voices heard.

For NPR News, I'm John Bartlett in Santiago, Chile.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Bartlett
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