Deniz Cengiz empowers the disadvantaged in Turkey

By Brian Canever September 21, 2014

Deniz Cengiz loves to tell the story of Kader Doğan.

A poor, rural teenager from conservative Hakkari, where women are rarely encouraged to participate in sports, Doğan became an inspiration after leading Turkey to a bronze medal in soccer at the inaugural Youth Olympics in 2010.

“She’s a big talent,” says Cengiz. “Her father was against her playing at first because in that part of the country women are supposed to marry by 14 or 15 years old. Now she has a big career and will probably go on to study at a university.”

Although she does not share Doğan’s background, Cengiz’s work is providing for similarly inspiring stories to manifest throughout Turkey.

Born in the capital of Ankara, a city of five million in a nation of 80 million, Cengiz achieved success first as sportswoman and most recently as the launchperson for the country’s earliest programs for disabled and disadvantaged soccer players.

As a teenager, Cengiz, whose father is the former wrestling coach of the Turkish Cyprus national team, started rowing. After only five months of training, she participated in her country’s national rowing championships in Istanbul in 2000.

She finished third.

“I was so new to the sport,” she recalls, “but, when I got into the boat, I concentrated and knew that I could do it. It was a precious achievement for me.”

The focus and concentration she developed in the boat helped Cengiz also find success in the classroom.

In 2009, after retiring from competitive rowing, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. The degree helped her land a job with the Turkish Football Federation, where she became the organization’s first-ever development officer for Disability/Disadvantaged Football and coordinator of the Disability Football Coordination Committee.

Although Cengiz describes the federation as a “man’s world,” she has managed to find her place and lead the TFF to new heights.

“I’m not only a woman, but I’m also very young for my position,” she says. “But, I’m very comfortable there and everyone respects my work.”

Among her achievements has been launching the Youth Prisoners Football Training Program, which provides training and competition for participants under 18 years old in 12 juvenile detention centers across the country. She also leads the United Football Project, a program that pairs deaf and non-deaf children for training and hosts upwards of 800 participants yearly.

“I see a lot of power in sport and football,” says Cengiz. “Sometimes it can be greater than religion and even family. It’s really changing everything and if it can be used for good it will help women.”

Cengiz’s belief in education – she earned an MBA in sport management earlier this year – sport and social responsibility led her to an opportunity at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games, where she coached Turkey’s women’s soccer team.

Although it was the first time many of the players competed in an organized event, the team won bronze.

“A lot of the women [who participated] come from very poor families and when they got the medal, they were so excited,” says Cengiz. “When they got home, their confidence changed and they are now totally different people.”

In Cengiz’s eyes, any growing hope for Turkey’s women is a move in the right direction. At this moment, only 27 of the country’s 2,950 mayors are female. Women also earn 38 percent less than Turkish men in comparable jobs.

As Cengiz explains, family pressure, poverty and child marriages continue to create formidable challenges to Turkey’s girls and women. Still, she knows that these issues are not distinct to her home country, and Cengiz has turned her eye outward.

“I don’t want my work to be limited to Turkey,” she says. “I hope that I can carry the message that I’ve been developing here and bring it elsewhere; to change the lives of women, prisoners and those with disabilities across the Middle East.”