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
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
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
"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.