‘It’s been really hard. I could barely sleep’

Adrian Cusack, Westmeath Independent

Photo: Paul Molloy

Israeli teenage student in Athlone speaks about death of his friend in recent attacks

A 19-year-old from Israel, who is studying at TUS in Athlone and playing rugby with Buccaneers, has spoken about his shock at the recent violence in his native country which claimed the life of one of his friends.

Yishai Avrahami became emotional when he talked about receiving a message on Tuesday of last week telling him one of his friends at home had been killed.

 “It was really hard. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t study. This friend had been in my village. He would eat in my house, stay in my house, everything. “Then I spoke to my sister and she was telling me that the situation is really hard. She lost a lot of friends.

 “She told me, ‘I know the situation is really difficult for you, and we’re sorry we can’t be with you’. But she told me to control my emotions, control myself, and put the emotion aside until this is all over.”

Rugby has been on many Irish minds lately, and it was the sport that brought Yishai to Ireland. He is from an area between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and he took up rugby at the age of 12.

Yishai had been preparing to join the Israeli Army in 2022, when father found out about a possibility of him coming to Ireland on a rugby scholarship. Just days after an initial Zoom call with Buccaneers U20 manager Niall Quinn, he was on a plane to Ireland.

“This was always was my dream but I never thought I would get it, because to be a rugby player from Israel is unusual, and to be a successful rugby player from Israel is even more unusual,” he said. Last season he played with the Buccaneers Under-20s, and twice with the seniors. He also plays for the Israel senior team and, after returning home in April, came back to Athlone in August to continue playing with Buccaneers and with TUS, where he is studying Sport and Recreation.

He said the attacks by Hamas on Saturday, October 7, which sparked the current wave of violence, were completely unexpected. “Israel wasn’t ready for what happened. It came from nowhere. On that Saturday morning. I just woke up to a lot of messages on my phone. My Dad called me and said, ‘Do you know what’s happening?’ I was like, ‘No, what’s going on, explain to me’. “I was in total shock. The first few days were really hard. I really wanted to go back to Israel to fight,” he said. “My service for Israel is to play for Israel and help develop rugby for Israel. That’s my service, not as a soldier.”

The day after the initial attacks, Buccaneers played Corinthians in the Connacht U20 League final. Yishai’s teammates observed a minute’s silence before the game for those killed, and also drew Stars of David on their arms in a gesture of solidarity. “It was really hard to play in that game. You were playing, but your head was not really in the game,” he said. “We won, and everyone was really happy, but I couldn’t be happy.” Yishai has five siblings, including a 22-year-old brother who is an officer in the Israeli Army and a sister who is working with its Air Force in a non-piloting role. He said his best friend is also in the Army.

But the events at home are constantly on his mind, and he follows the news reports while also receiving updates from his family. “At the end of the day, that’s my country and I want to know what’s going on there. I can’t just be sitting here having the best time of my life when they are fighting,” he said.

When asked about what he thinks will happen at home in the coming days and weeks, he said: “I think Israel is going to react strongly. (Hamas) did too much that we can’t forgive, and we are going to react strong.”

He was originally scheduled to fly to Israel himself on Monday of this week, to play international rugby games against Cyprus and Malta, but these were cancelled due to the violence.

Yishai is hoping to pursue a career as a rugby player, and said everyone at Buccaneers had been hugely supportive during this difficult time. “All of my teammates told me, ‘If you need something call me, I’m here for you’. All of the managers and everyone told me that too, so that was really nice and helpful.”