GSMP 2013 alumnae reunited at Vital Voices

By Brian Canever December 23, 2015

Before Hayam Essam and Luz Amuchastegui departed back to Egypt and Argentina in October 2013 following the conclusion of the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program they shared a deep feeling of sadness.

Over the course of just one month, Hayam and Luz became incredibly close. As participants in GSMP 2013, Hayam, founder of Girl Power Egypt, and Luz, programs manager for El Desafio in Argentina, spent time sharing plans of the change they’d spark upon returning home. Despite the talk of an eternal sisterhood, however, there was sinking reality as they embraced for a final time in Washington DC that they’d soon be separated by thousands of miles.

“Going to my room on the last night it just hit me: Am I never going to see her again?” Hayam said. “I was so consumed by this thought that it kept me awake all night. I really couldn’t sleep — it was heartbreaking.”

Luz, on the other hand, believed a future reunion would come soon enough. Their bond was too strong to keep them apart.

“Besides the fact that there was a true feeling of sisterhood with everybody in the program, for some reason, Hayam became like a true blood sister for me,” Luz said. “There may be an eight-hour time difference, and we’re from the other side of the world, but it doesn’t seem like I first met her two years ago, or that we only spent 40 days together.  I felt that I’d known her forever.”

The dream reunion became a reality for Hayam and Luz this year as both women were accepted into the 2015 Vital Voices VVLead Fellowship Program, a coming together of 70 women from 33 countries for a yearlong fellowship. The program networks female social entrepreneurs from across the globe who work to empower women and combat gender inequality and violence in their communities.

Dr. Ashleigh Huffman, assistant director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, & Society, recently connected with an ecstatic Hayam and Luz via Skype as they attended a Vital Voices exchange program in Cape Town, South Africa. Their conversation touched on their work with Girl Power Egypt and El Desafio, the importance of female role models, the function of sport in empowering girls women, and how the GSMP sisterhood is never broken.

So what does it mean for you to participate in a program like Vital Voices as sportswomen?

Luz Amuchastegui: It is funny because we are 70 women from basically all over the world. We all have our cultural differences, but women’s issues are very similar everywhere. Yet, we have a completely different approach from the rest of the participants. We want to engage girls and make the lessons personal for them. It’s like developing a one-on-one relationship through sports instead of being focused on the issue itself. That is how you change a mindset and how you make girls believe in their own potential; by engaging them in a journey through sports.

Hayam Essam: I think being on this program gives us a lot of credibility and recognition that really strengthens our position when we go back to our countries. As Luz said, it’s always very humbling to be in the presence of other women and it actually kind of puts more responsibility on you because you always think that what you are doing maybe is not enough. These opportunities program your mind to think of solutions all the time and to think of possibilities to be better and do better and make a better impact with what you are already doing.

Tell us about how your own sports journeys shaped you into the leaders you are today. What lessons did you learn?

Hayam Essam: Sports basically made me discover myself. Being exposed to a team and having all these little challenges and small achievements at a young age, you learn a lot of things that are useful in your life after sports. I think playing sports kind of shaped my future without me even knowing it. I played many years on the Egyptian national team and won many championships before I retired in 2004. But my first ever leadership role was being the captain of my youth basketball team, and that experience really led me to being the leader I am today.

Luz Amuchastegui: I started playing field hockey around 5 years old. I didn’t really enjoy it at that time, but by the age of 12, I started taking it more seriously when I became the goalie of the team, which meant a lot of responsibilities. You really need to be strong-minded because you have to handle lots of pressures from the team, from within the game itself, and that is one of the most important lessons that sports has given me personally: strong-mindedness.

Now can each of you tell us a little bit about the organizations Girl Power Egypt and El Desafio and what issues you both are trying to address specifically in your communities?

Hayam Essam: Girl Power is a community initiative that I started in 2013 after coming back from the GSMP. The programs we provide empower girls by helping them to develop their character through sports, through teaching them life and social skills, and through programs that address them by age group. The main objective is to provide sports opportunities for girls who have never had any sports access. So some of the girls that we work with have never even worn a sports shoe before. It’s funny because we come to the trainings and we have all of these volunteers who are either currently playing basketball or ex-basketball players, and we come with the aim in our minds to teach the girls basketball. Then we realize that what we take for granted, like running and jumping, it’s something that these girls don’t know how to do. This really hits us every single time we work with new girls because it really gives value to what we are doing. Our big dream is to reach a point where these girls form a real basketball team that can actually compete.

Luz Amuchastegui: At El Desafio we have the mission of creating social change by working on the root causes of poverty and empowering women in society. With that said, we have two main areas where we work. One is with the people that are currently living in poverty — that’s where we use sports right now. So for girls it’s about playing field hockey and learning life skills while they do that. We want to teach them how to protect their future. Most of them just want to become moms and that’s kind of it. For us, it’s about them getting to understand that there are other reasonable options that can change their realities; that they can become whoever they want to become, if they really want to and if they have the necessary tools that we help them build.

From someone who’s in the sports field, I get the importance of sports opportunities and life skill development. For the audience that you’re with at Vital Voices that may be like, ‘Okay, you want girls to play — so what?’ How would you answer the ‘so what?’ Why does it matter that girls in Argentina and Egypt have the opportunity to play sports?

Hayam Essam: I think sports provide a learning environment. So sport goes hand in hand with education in general. It provides an environment where you can learn something in a fun and positive atmosphere that you don’t have in a classroom setting. You can spend a lot of time with these girls in a classroom teaching them all kinds of things, but the impact that you are going to have on them is not as much as what’s going to happen when they are actually playing. When they are playing a team sport they are exposed to a lot of minor challenges that are not predictable. You don’t plan these kinds of things with sport, it just happens. And it gives you this space to play, have fun, make friends, and, at the same time, learn invaluable lessons that will help you later on in your life. I have parents coming to me and saying the girls have really changed. They started moving and now want to do their homework in order to come to training. Even if you haven’t played any sports, seeing this effect on your children makes you believe in the power of sports even though you have absolutely no idea what it’s like.

Luz Amuchastegui: I’ve actually had some people during this exchange asking me that question. I give them hard data on how sports have the power of creating change. Like for instance, there are studies that show girls that practice sports have better school performance. Sports allow you to experience things while you are playing and learn knowledge that you can incorporate into your life. That is the key power of sports. It becomes a school without walls.

I feel like both of you are really anomalies within your communities. You have set a different standard for what it means to be a woman in Rosario and in Cairo, for different reasons. What do you think your presence as women involved in sports who are giving back to the community does in the places where you work?

Luz Amuchastegui: I think the most important thing I am doing is being a role model. In a community where the female role models are not many — or not the ones you wish to have –,I’d like to think that I model not settling for the standard. That way these girls can understand that it’s possible and there’s nothing wrong with being different; that you can be happy with it. For me that is key: being happy with who you are and why you make decisions and embracing your own life.

Hayam Essam: Let me tell you something that happened with us in Girl Power. Before starting every program we have this baseline survey that we do with the girls. There’s this question that we always ask them, “Who is your female role model in sports?” We have worked with almost 70 girls and have never gotten an answer. Never. So imagine these same girls now are trained by ex-basketball players — most of us played professionally even — and the fact that we are women is actually the reason why their parents trusted us in the first place. For many reasons because they can see that we are playing, and we’re good, and we’re taking care of their girls. We are the real life examples in front of the parents and in front of the girls. There was one time we were talking about goals with the girls and we started asking each one of them what their goal is coming to practice. Every single girl picked one of the coaches and said, ‘Because I want to be like her.’ This is very powerful. Seeing is believing at the end of the day. So if you have never ever seen a woman play any kind of sport, how are you going to ever know that it’s something that you are entitled to do?

Okay, last question. Soft toss — tell me what was it like to be reunited after two years and what the sisterhood means to you?

Hayam Essam: After the program and after realizing how much we can still be connected and how the bond that happened between us on the GSMP was so real, it feels like we are always together. Yes, we are from two different parts of the world, but we are always there for each other. There’s this level of trust that we share that I honestly never imagined would happen with someone that I just met for three or four weeks. Being reunited was like a dream come true.

Luz Amuchastegui: The sisterhood, and how it’s been created through the program, is what makes the GSMP so unique. I don’t know if it even has to do with each of us having played sports. But the program really is different with how each of us — the sisters — develop these relationships.

Listen to the podcast version of this interview below