Even after a long flight and jet lag, 11 female, Iraqi athletes and three coaches arrived to the United States this December bright-eyed and ready for an empowering experience. They were eager to listen, ask questions, and talk about their backgrounds as teenage soccer players and students in Iraq. Although most of the young women met for the first time at the airport, coming from three different cities -- Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Erbil -- they already acted like teammates.
The exchange began in April when U.S. Women's National Team players Lorrie Fair and Mary Harvey went to Iraq to engage more than 750 Iraqi women and girls, and to promote how sports can improve health, increase academic success, and expand one’s horizon of opportunities. This program is part of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative, developed to support the State Department’s efforts to empower and inspire women and girls to become full participants in their communities.
I was honored to welcome these guests to the United States on the first day of their soccer exchange. We talked about how sports can transcend cultural and societal barriers and help one achieve goals on and off the field. During their time in Washington, D.C., the athletes experienced disability sports with local-area wheelchair basketball and tennis teams and learned about American history through the lens of women’s sports. In Cary, North Carolina, the group took part in activities surrounding the 2013 NCAA Women's Final Four Soccer National Championships.
Young Americans and this Iraqi group played soccer together and also made time to learn about each other’s culture, lives, and challenges. The clinics with former U.S. Women’s National Soccer team stars were certainly highlights, and whether over Southern cuisine or in the bleachers of the NCAA finals, the conversations among Iraqis and American youth about their shared experiences were nonstop. The love of sports is universal and gave the young athletes of both nationalities a common language to learn about each other and a foundation for what will hopefully be a long lasting relationship.
About the Author: Evan Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.