Amid chaos in Gaza, Ramsey Nijem stands up as a proud Palestinian
For UFC lightweight Ramsey Nijem, the conflict between Israel and Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 1,800 Palestinians since the violence erupted several weeks ago, hits close to home as he prepares to carry his country's flag into the Octagon at UFC 177.
Nijem has aunts, uncles and cousins living in the ravaged country of Palestine, and for those family members it's just an everyday reality to wake up to alarms wailing in the night with just seconds to scramble until a bomb explodes overhead.
"It's been really hard and it's been weighing really heavy on me and my family. Yesterday my aunt's apartment building got blown up," the 26-year-old lightweight told FOX Sports. "Luckily she wasn't in there, she was at my other aunt's house with all my cousins so we're blessed right there, but some of the neighbors didn't get out. That's just a reality they live in.
"Where else are they going to go? They live in a giant prison. Some of them don't have phones — they cut off all the phones, water and everything. They don't have food and all they can get is aid that sometimes gets through so they are starving, and our family has really had to pull together here stateside and I'm lucky. I'm blessed that I was born here in the States, but I have a lot of family, immediate family, that don't have that reality. It's been really hard on my dad and my family."
Meanwhile, the conflict has sparked a battle in the media as celebrities and politicians alike choose sides. Some support Israel, condemning the Palestinians and the Hamas forces existing in the country, while others have gone as far as to call the death of Palestinian civilians a war crime committed by Israel.
The perception and the reality are much different to someone like Nijem.
"It’s frustrating watching the news here in the U.S., it really is so misrepresentative of the whole situation," he says. "... I get these Israelis, they want a place to live and I'm not racist at all, I have a lot of Jewish friends that I grew up with, and one of my best friends is Jewish and he came to my fight in Abu Dhabi. I wish that was something I could get across to people — it's not a race war.
"Zionism is a political movement that needs to stop. Hamas is a political movement that needs to stop. Both sides, no matter what, we're going to have to deal with it. At the end of the day the Palestinians are there, they aren't going away, no matter what you say, what you do, they're going to be there. We've got to move forward. We've got to empower the people."
The former "Ultimate Fighter" finalist has felt like a stranger living on an island for much of this conflict. A poll conducted by CNN shows that 57 percent of Americans support the attacks on the Gaza Strip by Israel.
Nijem understands the numbers and is not criticizing anyone for supporting Israel, but he's unsure if people in the States really know what's happening thousands of miles away.
"I have family in West Bank and Gaza that have never even been able to see each other. What else are they going to do but join a radical group like Hamas and fight back?" he says. "That's kind of a situation where it's like, 'I can sit here jobless, penniless, hungry, or I can join this movement and fight back for my rights.'
"I think the important thing would be educate people and give them something to fight for and I think that's kind of where I can step in — as a Palestinian athlete to show that we're capable of doing more things. Doesn't matter where you're from, you can do great things and dream bigger and we can do great things in this world. It's really hard when you're in an occupation and all you can do is fight back. What else would you expect these kids to do?"
Nijem has joined the athletes and celebs willing to speak out in support of Palestinian freedom and denouncing the attacks by Israel. The result has been a backlash that Nijem blames on cultural ignorance.
"I have been damned a little bit for having that voice," he says. "I don't know if you've seen, but I've sent out tweets that say 'Free Palestine' and I've sent out pictures of me and my brother protesting and I've had a lot of negative feedback from people in the United States that have no f--king idea what they're talking about, and it's really kind of disgusting that people are bringing their opinion without doing any kind of research.
"An opinion is like an a--hole; everyone has one and they all stink, right? I just wish people would take more time to research and talk to people. The people in these situations on the Jewish side and the Palestinian side are human beings just like me and you. All they want to do is take care of their families, live, eat and be happy. But all you ever learn about are these extremists.
"It's very frustrating because as Americans we're taught at a very young age to feel sympathy for the Israeli people, from a young age that's the American way — 'Oh the poor Jews, poor this, poor that,' and we're taught to feel sorry for them, but when you look back and it's like when Apartheid came back and people were fighting that. You know why? Because people are scared of change. People are scared of something changing and in all reality of another group of people being empowered.
"That's why a lot of Americans side with Israel, because if they can keep those people down, it's 'Oh poor Israel, they're getting two bombs thrown at them, some homemade rockets, so yeah those dirty Palestinians deserve to have their houses blown up and the children killed.'"
Nijem has walked to the cage carrying the Palestinian flag for his past few UFC fights, but the gesture takes on a greater significance when Nijem (5-3) faces Carlos Diego Ferreira at UFC 177 on Aug. 30. He's representing his people and giving a voice to the voiceless.
"This fight in August in Sacramento is important. I'm going to walk out with my Palestinian flag, I'm going to show the world. How can I lose?" Nijem says. "I have so much purpose to my fight. I have to go out and I have to put on a great performance. This is how I can affect the world and make it a better place. Most people want to fight because they want to be famous or they want to make money, or they fight because they don’t know any other way. I have a college degree; I could make a lot more money doing other things. ... I don't really care about being famous.
"What's the motivation? It's all motivation to go out there and put on a good performance and represent my people."