FAIRFAX, Va. -- Demonstrating that sports can be used as a tool to transcend cultural differences, the George Mason men's volleyball team recently had a unique opportunity to interact with female volleyball coaches from Iraq.
As a part of the SportsUnited program under the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, 14 female Iraqi volleyball coaches spent 12 days in the United States learning from their American counterparts. The group visited local schools and engaged with athletes and coaches in the D.C. area and San Antonio, Texas, with the trip culminating as they participated in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) convention.
Arriving in the Nation's Capital on December 8, one of the first stops for the group was the campus of George Mason University to meet with head coach Fred Chao and members of the men's volleyball team.
After meeting the team and watching practice, the group of women had the opportunity to ask Chao and women's head coach Pat Kendrick questions about volleyball, covering a range of topics from coaching techniques to playing styles. The trip to the RAC concluded with the women playing an informal match on the GMU court.
The majority of the group spoke very little English, but the passion and appreciation for the game was ever evident as cheers arose each time the men had a great kill or made a dig to save a play. It was noted by a couple of the women that they were learning so much just by watching the men play.
One of the women, Sura Jamil Hanna, is a volleyball player/coach from the University of Duhok who has been playing volleyball for over 15 years. She is currently working towards her Ph.D. in volleyball instruction at the University, with an emphasis on playing the game in water and its effects on athletes. In addition to studying at the University, Hanna also coaches women's volleyball, and was very excited to come to America to learn not only techniques as a player, but also as a coach.
But volleyball wasn't always easy for Hanna to play. She grew up in Baghdad as a member of a Christian family, facing social challenges based not only on her gender but also based on her religion.
"In the South, they don't have women's sports teams or places for women to gather and play," remarked Hanna. "And if there is a team, they do not have access to practice facilities before a competition, maybe practicing just one week before a tournament."
After the start of the Iraq War in 2003, Hanna and her family saw an increase in the tensions and decrease in safety for Christians in Baghdad, so they sought refuge in Northern Iraq where there was less influence from then President Saddam Hussein.
Hanna attended the University of Duhok while also playing and coaching volleyball at the University and around the city. She started with coaching males, but now works with female players.
"Now that I am in the North there is better access to practice facilities, and there are more teams and competitions available for women," remarked Hanna. "Even the Iraqi championships are held there because the quality of the facilities is so much better."
Hanna spoke enthusiastically about everything she hopes to learn during her visit to America, including seeing how coaches work with their teams, and being able to attend the AVCA Convention. She is hopeful to learn everything new in coaching, from techniques to equipment and how to develop players.
And everything she learns should help her not only develop her team at the University of Duhok, but one day help her reach an even bigger platform.
"I'm coaching at the University level now, but someday I hope to coach internationally and help grow the game for women in Iraq," remarked Hanna.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs leads the U.S. Department of State's international exchange efforts in bringing the global community together through sports. Through the SportsUnited Office, athletes and coaches from a range of sports are chosen to conduct clinics, visit schools, and engage with youth overseas in a dialogue on the importance of an education, positive health practices, and respect for diversity. Since 2003, SportsUnited has brought over 879 athletes from 58 countries to the United States for Sports Visitor programs. Since 2005, SportsUnited has sent over 203 U.S. athletes or coaches to 51 countries for participation in Sports Envoy programs.