By Elizabeth Davis
Sarah Hillyer may be one of the few Americans Maryam will ever meet. There’s a good chance Maryam will tell her friends and family in Isfahan, Iran, about Hillyer and how she came to Iran to coach Maryam’s fledgling softball team and gave them new balls and bats. And maybe the story of one American’s goodwill will spread to create a positive impression in the minds of other Iranians. This kind of hope is at the heart of Sport 4 Peace, an organization founded by Hillyer and fellow UT Knoxville student Ashleigh Huffman.
Sport 4 Peace provides sports camps and programs that use sport as a tool to promote peace and empower girls and women in countries where they may face cultural, political, and religious obstacles. Through the programs, Hillyer and Huffman gather data for their research in sport sociology. Hillyer has been to Iran eight times to teach softball to college-aged women. Many there had never heard of softball or seen a bat and glove. Since 2002 teams have sprung up in 15 cities around the country. During her last visit in May, Hillyer met Maryam, who is the catcher for the team in Isfahan.
Before Hillyer left, she presented the entire Isfahan team with two large duffle bags of equipment—a big improvement from the 1970s–era baseball bats and bases cut from scraps of carpet that they had been using. Hillyer says Maryam was overcome with emotion when she received a mask, a glove, and shin guards.
“In broken English she said, ‘It means so much. I am the catcher of the Isfahan team, and I’ve never had a mask or a chest protector or the things that go on our legs. And because of that I’ve had a broken nose and a few black eyes and several busted lips, and you have no idea how much this means to me.’ ”
As Maryam spoke, she began to cry, and then she hugged Hillyer.
“She sobbed as if she had lost someone to death because she was so incredibly grateful,” Hillyer said. “She finally had something to protect her face and body that would allow her to play a sport she absolutely loves.”
Together Hillyer and Huffman, both doctoral students at UT Knoxville, have worked in several countries in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. Government officials, National Olympic Committees, and other groups have invited Sport 4 Peace to their countries to promote sport. The Islamic Federation of Women’s Sports and the Baseball and Softball Federation invited Hillyer and other Americans to Iran.
Two years ago Huffman organized a girls’ camp in Israel that comprised Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Huffman interviewed 16 Israeli and Palestinian girls at the camp, and many agreed that the Sport 4 Peace experience had changed their worldview and encouraged them not to trust the prejudices inherent in their society. Today many of the girls remain friends despite their intense and sometimes hostile political environment.
Another lasting memory of the camp was the story of four girls solving a dilemma probably faced by other girls and women around the world—how to get dressed and ready for dinner in 15 minutes with only one available shower. They solved it by working together. Two Jewish girls, one Muslim, and a Christian put on their bathing suits and got in the shower together.
“You would never think that would happen, and so I think it was just the essence of the camp,” Huffman said. “And the fact that those four still remain in such close contact and have had their parents drive them to Jerusalem to meet—that’s what it was all about.”
Hillyer and Huffman believe sport provides a natural way for people to come together. Sport gives them the opportunity to communicate, set and achieve goals, learn to accept defeat, celebrate success, and work together.
“For these girls and women in cultures where they typically don’t have extensive sport opportunities and in cultures where they are often inundated with mistrust about other cultures and our culture, we think it’s made a tremendous difference in the lives of individuals,” Hillyer said.
Hillyer and Huffman are continuing their research, but they already have found sport to be a way to break down barriers and open dialogue between people who ultimately realize they’re not as different as they first believed.
“If those individuals can have a different idea and if they can just impact their family, then if their family can impact a wider range of community, then maybe in the end at least we’ve been able to impact small pockets of people,” Hillyer said. “In this pursuit of peace, anything is better than nothing.”
Hoops, Hope in Iraq
Iraqi women who play basketball in a future Olympics may have UT student Sarah Hillyer to thank. Hillyer, a doctoral student in sport sociology, spent 2 weeks last summer in northern Iraq teaching basketball. The National Olympic Committee Iraq, the National Olympic Committee Kurdistan, and the Iraq Basketball Association invited her to help rebuild the Iraqi women’s national program.
Hillyer went as a representative of Sport 4 Peace, the organization she founded and oversees with fellow UT student Ashleigh Huffman. The Lady Vols provided some basketballs, and Coach Pat Summitt videotaped a message to the Iraqi women and sent a videotape of the Lady Vols practicing. The girls at the camp sent back a video thanking Summitt.
“When we play basketball, it’s more than just basketball—it’s learning valuable life skills,” Summitt said in the video. “I know that you take some risks in doing what you do, but don’t ever fear the risks. Go for the opportunity to learn and to become strong young women.”
In Iraq the goal is to build toward a national team. There were more than 60 players at the camp, aged 16 to 30, and 15 coaches. Many of the players and coaches had to travel across the country—hoping to avoid danger at checkpoints—to reach the camp.
“I think one of the most difficult parts of the trip was to see the reality of the suffering of the Iraqi and Kurdish people and to realize the Iraqi women were no different than our kids at home,” Hillyer said. “They have hopes and dreams, [but] they have great obstacles to overcome to achieve their dreams.”
During the camp, the players learned fundamental skills and participated in drills every day. In the afternoons, the teams played against each other.
“We cannot lose hope, sit at home and never do anything, stop going to school, stop playing,” said one of the campers. “We cannot do that. Life doesn’t go on like that. We have to play. We have to have hope.”