Anne-Dorte Andersen was born as the only child to a loving set of parents in Copenhagen, Denmark. From a very early age, Anne was attracted to physical activity. When she was five years old, she wanted to become a dancer. Her mother, who had never pursued physical activity, was a little nervous for her young daughter to join a dance class. But Anne was relentless and eventually her mother conceded. That was the start of Anne’s physically active life.
Like her mother, Anne has Dysmelia, a condition that means she was born without hands and feet. For many reasons, Anne’s mother became the central, most important person in Anne’s life. They shared the characteristic of Dysmelia, which only strengthened their bond.
When Anne turned twelve, she asked to join the local swimming club. Anne’s father searched for a club that would include his daughter and train her with the other students. To their surprise, it was quite difficult to find a coach that would allow her to participate. In the end, her father succeeded and Anne began her swimming career.
In the water, Anne was a natural. By the age of fifteen, Anne was competing as a Paralympian at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics Games. She followed that performance up with two more Paralympic appearances at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and the 1996 Games in Atlanta. For Anne, like many young girls, sports allowed her to express herself.
“Being on the national team meant a lot to me. There were only three of us females on the team, which forced us to express ourselves, to get over our shyness and learn to advocate for what we needed. As women with disabilities, we had to learn to fight for our own rights and to make our own path in life. Without sport, I’m not sure I would have done this for myself with the same resolve.”
After an extensive swimming career, Anne began looking for a job in the civil sector in Denmark. Unfortunately, due to unintended prejudices within the Danish work system, jobs for persons with disabilities were hard to come by. So Anne moved to the UK, where she found employment as a Disability Sports Development Officer in Wales and then in England. After more than ten years away, Anne returned to her home country to work with the Danish Sports Association for the Disabled. In her position as the Sports Project Coordinator for Disabled Children and Youth, Anne is responsible for creating more sport opportunities for children with disabilities and identifying potential athlete for the Danish Paralympics talent squads.
Belia Zibowa was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She was the youngest in a family of eight – three brothers, two sisters, and her mother and father. Belia’s parents were both hard-working service professionals; her mother, a nurse and her father, an ambulance driver. Her siblings were incredibly athletic. Her oldest brothers played on the national teams for basketball and squash respectively.
Like her oldest brother, Belia was also very tall. As a female, however, her height made her exceptionally self-conscious. “Growing up, I used to slouch all the time. I wanted to fit in so bad. I wanted to be short like all my other friends. And then one day I stepped onto the basketball court. And literally, this moment changed my life. On the court, I stood up for the first time. I was in a place where my height was an advantage! I lifted my body, put my shoulders back, and stood tall. Basketball changed the way I felt about myself. I had confidence like never before.”
On the court, Belia was a natural. Her coaches were so impressed by her abilities that they began talking to her about scholarship opportunities. Unfortunately, her parents were very busy working, leaving Belia without the support and guidance she needed to pursue this opportunity. So for Belia, she let basketball fall by the wayside. She graduated high school and started working in a local hotel to pay her way through college. Upon graduation, Belia became the manager for a provincial women’s basketball team.
Three years later, a former coach called Belia to ask if she would be interested in fundraising for the women’s national basketball team. He also offered her the opportunity to enroll in a Sports Management Certification program led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Right away, Belia agreed to both. She accepted the position as a fundraiser for the Bulawayo Basketball Association and later was elected Vice President of Promotions for the Basketball Union of Zimbabwe.
Since then, Belia has been promoted to the Provincial Coordinator for the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee and the Head of the Steering Committee for the Africa Outreach NGO. Belia is also finishing a post-graduate diploma in Advanced Sports Management under the IOC. Through her achievements, Belia hopes to serve as a positive example for what is possible for young girls in Zimbabwe.
“The environment in which we live is stifling our young people. They have lost the ability to dream. The idea that ‘if you work hard, you can achieve it’ has been lost on this generation. There aren’t enough jobs and the jobs that do exist, don’t always cover the bills. We have to find a way for hard work to matter again; for dreams to become reality. I want basketball to be the tool that opens doors for these young girls. I want them to see that it is not just basketball, but opportunities for education, for travel, and for sports administration careers. I never thought I would be where I am today, that I would be going to America, but because of basketball it has become possible.”
Deniz Cengiz was born and raised by her sports-minded family in Ankara, Turkey. Her father, an Olympic-level wrestler and coach for the Turkish Cyprus National Wrestling Team, and her mother, a social science teacher, were both avid supporters of athletics. Sport was a part of her family’s DNA; as a result, Deniz was exposed to a number of different sports throughout her childhood – including ice-skating, basketball, and volleyball. She loved and played them all…until she saw her first rowing event on television. Watching the Olympic rowers move in unison across the water caused her heart to skip a beat. She knew at that moment, rowing was the sport for her.
Despite the lack of teams and competition available for girls in Turkey, Deniz pursued her dreams to row. She was a natural. She quickly discovered her own physical prowess in the boat and her instinctive leadership qualities. As the selected team captain, she had to learn early how to hold people accountable while also being a respected and likeable teammate. This helped Deniz formulate her leadership style, which has proven to be quite persuasive in her current line of work.
In addition to rowing, Deniz was heavily involved in volunteer work. As a high school student, Deniz began tutoring orphans. Her passions for underserved populations eventually led to her current position with the Turkish Football Federation as a Grassroots Program Development Officer for disadvantaged youth and persons with disabilities.
“There is something inside of me. I can’t explain it. All of my life, I have wanted to volunteer to help underserved children. The idea of volunteering is not something that is done in my family or that is inherent to our culture. I never dreamed that my passion to help others could become a professional career for me. But I am so happy to be living out my dreams.”
As the Grassroots Program Development Officer, Deniz organizes soccer tournaments and leagues, which include persons who are deaf, blind, or have physical or mental disabilities as well as juvenile prisoners, orphans, and at-risk youth. In just five short years, Deniz has organized 60 soccer events in 45 Turkish provinces and on average, serves more than 60,000 people per year.
Despite Deniz’s unbelievable success, she still believes there is work to be done. “Sport gives people hope. It has amazing, life-changing power. And yes, I have reached a lot of people. But there are 8 million disabled people in Turkey. This is a huge number, so really, my work is just beginning.”
Dima Alardah was the youngest of five siblings — three sisters and two brothers — all raised under one roof by their mother and father in Amman, Jordan. As the youngest, Dima had big shoes to fill. Her older brothers grew up to become doctors and accountants; and her sisters, lawyers and engineers. Her father, who was also an engineer, made education one of the highest family priorities and it shows in the occupations chosen by his children.
Dima, who was smart and hardworking like her siblings, valued school but unlike her siblings, also took a keen interest in sport. “My family was so surprised that I liked sports. No one in my family plays anything. But me, I play everything! I started out in gymnastics, then basketball, and ultimately found my love with badminton. Although my family didn’t always understand it, they were enthusiastic and supportive, and they were always proud of me.” As a result, Dima was able to achieve a spot on the national team and later became a professional badminton player.
While achieving her goals on the court, Dima also excelled in the classroom. She passed the university exam that allowed her to pursue an architecture degree program. Although most people consider this program very difficult, Dima found it rather easy. She credits her badminton training for teaching her how to be disciplined and manage her time, which allowed her to stay focused on her academic goals. “I learned a lot by playing badminton. I learned how to have goals and achieve them. I learned that nothing is achieved without hard work. I learned to never give up. You just have to keep going until you reach your goals. Sports taught me that.”
After university, Dima graduated with an architecture degree and worked in the field for two years while continuing to play professional badminton. It became increasingly obvious to Dima that architecture was not her first love; and despite a well-paying job, she left the field to open her own badminton academy. SHUTTLERS is the first badminton academy in the Middle East—owned and operated by Dima—a twenty-seven year old female. The academy was established in February 2012 and now serves more than 300 participants, both males and females.
In addition to her academy, Dima is also now one of the head sports trainers for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The NRC is working in Jordan to aid tens of thousands of refugees that have fled Syria since 2011. As a sports trainer, Dima works to create unique sports and outreach opportunities for Syrian refugees living in tent camps on the Jordanian border. In addition to teaching sports, Dima also conducts trainings on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Her ultimate goal in the camps is to use sport to empower girls and women, support them as they overcome obstacles, and teach valuable life lessons like teamwork, cooperation, and respect.
Eva Aouad Turk is an outdoor sports enthusiast and has been since a young child. Eva grew up as the youngest of five siblings in a war-torn Lebanon. Most every spring, the fighting would begin and Eva’s family would pack up their belongings and head to the coast. The shoreline became Eva’s sanctuary, literally and figuratively. It was here that Eva discovered her passion for the water. Eva would start her day early, swimming, snorkeling, and roller-blading with her brothers and sisters until time for bed.
“I was one of the lucky ones. When the violence started in our country, I could still lead a normal life. I had a family that could move us away from the danger and give us this opportunity together at the sea. For me, it was like the war didn’t exist. Others, however, were not so lucky.”
It was life by the sea that cultivated Eva’s free spirit and love for nature. As much as the sea influenced Eva’s personal life, the conflict in Lebanon spurred her professional pursuits. At the university, Eva studied political science and public administration. While studying, Eva met a man named Bassam. They both shared an interest in sports and politics. Combining their passions with an entrepreneurial spirit, Eva and Bassam, her soon-to-be husband, opened a travel agency specializing in sports and outdoor tourism. The goal of their travel agency, Sport Evasion, was to promote Lebanon as an outdoor sports destination among young professionals and to integrate fitness and sport into corporate culture.
“We believe that healthy employees are more productive employees. Physical activity is not only good for the body, but for the mind and soul. And it also positively affects the team spirit of the organization.” Sport Evasion now runs several large-scale football and basketball tournaments for corporate team competition. In 2007, they also launched the Beirut Corporate Games, which includes two full days of individual and team fitness challenges. Women are becoming increasingly more involved in these competitions, but Eva would like to see an even greater turnout. She is looking to create a new event model, something that is solely focused on women and their passion and interests.
In addition to creating more fitness opportunities for women, Eva is also interested in promoting female entrepreneurship within Lebanon. She believes entrepreneurship is a valid and sustainable solution to a system that is not currently set up for women to be part of the labor force.
“Right now, the system in Lebanon is not very conducive to working women. The way things are structured, women have to manage it all – a career, a family, the household. You have to work late, you have to travel, you have to be available to pick up the children from school. It’s a lot. But encouraging women to become entrepreneurs allows them the flexibility they need to have a family and a business. You are your own boss. You can work from home without having to explain that to your manager. Promoting women’s entrepreneurship is not only good for the family, but good for the economy.”
Lizzie Kiama grew up an active child in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya. She was the first born with three siblings to follow. Her mother was the pillar of the family, the glue that held everything together. In Lizzie’s words, “My mother, she did it all. My father was in and out of our lives unfortunately. But my mother was determined, resilient, and creative. She started a number of businesses from scratch. If something didn’t work out, she would just pick up and try something else. She was strong-minded in that way. And she loved all of us and made us feel so special. My mother made me who I am today.”
Lizzie’s mother played a critical role in her childhood development, but maybe an even more important role in Lizzie’s adult life. At the age of 18, Lizzie was in a serious car accident. After many surgeries, she left the hospital in a wheelchair and through a slow and laborious process, she began walking again. As a young woman, Lizzie went to school, she dated, she worked, and she got married. It wasn’t until the birth of her baby that Lizzie lost mobility again; moving to the use of a cane and sometimes the use of a wheelchair.
With the support of her husband and mother, Lizzie slowly began to connect with her new identity. As her mother said, “There is a reason this happened to you Lizzie. You have the strength to carry it gracefully and to use it as a tool to empower others.” Over time, Lizzie began to understand her mother’s vision. “For me, understanding disability as part of my identity was a difficult journey. But once I embraced it, I was empowered to use it. I had claimed it for myself, instead of letting others label me as such. When you know who you are and what you stand for, there is power in that.”
Lizzie has since launched her own management consulting firm, This-Ability that aims to provide management support to organizations working in Kenya. This-Ability creates strategies for organizations to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) specifically in relation to poverty, human rights issues, and the protection of marginalized populations. This-Ability is dedicated to improving opportunities for vulnerable communities, particularly persons with disabilities using sustainable and inclusive methods.
Lizzie’s most recent project, “Women and Wheels,” promotes inclusion and the integration of women with varying degrees of mobility through friendly wheelchair rugby competitions. The project is designed to use sport to increase understanding about the life of women with disabilities and address existing stereotypes. Through the GSMP, Lizzie aims to maximize her leadership potential and learn best practices and sustainable techniques that are in line with her organizational goals and objectives to grow This-Ability nationally and regionally within the next five years.
Maqulate Onyango grew up in an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. She was the firstborn and only girl in a family of seven. Mathare, the slum area where she was raised, lacked many basic amenities like electricity, running water, security, and sanitation. Like the majority of families in Mathare, Maqulate’s parents struggled to find work and to feed their children. Most days, Maqulate and her four brothers were fed only one meal a day, all that her family could afford. Obviously with such little money, paying for primary and secondary school was not possible. And when it was possible, Maqulate’s brothers were the ones to attend, as they were the ones who were expected to provide for their own families in the future. As a result, Maqulate did not attend school on a formal or consistent basis until she was thirteen years old.
At the age of 13, Maqulate was approached by MYSA, the Mathare Youth Sports Association. MYSA offered Maqulate an opportunity to play in their local soccer league and to participate in community clean-up projects. In return, they would pay for Maqulate to attend school.
“The MYSA football fields were within walking distance from my home. I would go there to watch. I wanted to be a part of it so bad. I was stressed, I could not afford lunch, I was alone, and I needed company to distract me from my hunger and worries. I needed people to talk to and to guide me. I wanted to laugh, to have fun, and compete. MYSA met those needs and they forever changed my life.”
Maqulate excelled in the MYSA program. When she wasn’t on the soccer pitch or volunteering in the community, she could be found in the library catching up on the years of education she missed. “By the age of 13, I still couldn’t express myself. I was lacking basic knowledge. So I read lots of books. And I borrowed old school notes from my friends. And I stayed in the library, reading and studying. I wanted to change my life and I knew education was the only way.”
In just five short years, Maqulate taught herself how to read and write at a level proficient enough to graduate from high school, earning an academic scholarship for her studies. Upon graduation, Maqulate purposefully wanted to give back to the organization that had given her so much. She began by volunteering as a coach for the young girls league.
One day while coaching, it struck her that all of the officials on the field were men – there were no female referees in the entire organization. Soon after this realization, Maqulate approached the organization about becoming a female official. MYSA agreed, making Maqulate one of the few female football referees in all of Kenya. After several years of training and great success, Maqulate later became the first Kenyan woman to be selected as a Match Commissioner by the African Football Confederation (CAF), one of the highest honors and responsibilities performed by a football official.
Since that time, Maqulate has used her platform to promote the training and education of other women and girls in officiating, sports training, and lifeskills development. For her hard work, Maqulate was appointed Director of the Sports and Environment Program at MYSA. Through this appointment, she has developed a number of programs including workshops on HIV/AIDS awareness, gender-based violence prevention, child protection, and teenage pregnancy aversion. She currently works with more than 500 women and children on a consistent basis, using sport as the convener to initiate important life skills discussions.
Marie Rivette was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She was the youngest of three girls. Her parents, whom she loved dearly, passed away when Marie was just a teenager. Marie used this loss as motivation for her life. “I had great parents and it was really difficult for me to lose them at a young age. But in many ways, it spurred me forward in my life; it forced me to get out there and to strive to be my best. I am thankful for the opportunity to be raised by very, very good parents and I live my life to honor their memory.”
During this difficult time, Marie found strength in her faith and through sports. She began playing volleyball and took on a leadership role within her church. She used her platforms in both to educate others on the beauty of life and taking advantage of the blessings around them. “I grew up in church, so the first thing I did when my mother passed was continue in church. I also continued in school and joined a local volleyball club. I took on leadership roles in both the club and my church and used my personal story of loss to encourage others to make the most of every second.”
Upon completing her secondary education, Marie went on to study at the local university, earning her degree in 2004 in Social Communications. The following year, Marie moved to Barbados to attend the University of the West Indies to study in the Institute for Gender and Development. After receiving her diploma, Marie worked for national NGOs as an advocate for women living in rural areas before moving back to Haiti to work as a consultant on issues of gender, equality, and women’s rights at the NGO Oxfam. At Oxfam, she quickly moved up the ladder where she was appointed Senior Project Manager for issues of Gender and Governance.
Things seemed to be headed in the right direction for Marie when tragedy struck again. In 2010, Haiti experienced one of the worst earthquakes in human history. The earthquake rang in at a magnitude of 7.3 on the Richter scale, killing more than 220,000 people. Disease, displacement, and loss plagued the people of Haiti as they tried to make sense of this experience and rebuild their lives. As a Social Communications specialist, Marie was trained to interpret experiences such as this one and use the tools and resources available to influence public perception, to connect people, and to promote social change.
“When the earthquake happened, lots of people mobilized to give water and food. And right after a tragedy, that is absolutely necessary. But as the time drew on, this system of dependency became disempowering. I was concerned with this situation and the mindset of our people. Man cannot live only with food and water; they must also experience dignity. So I am working to ensure the rights of the people, specifically that the rights of women are in the center of the reconstruction process. Haitians are people that want to build their own future, to raise their own voice. In my role, I help mobilize, empower, and connect them to the right people so that we can work together to overcome the challenges we are facing still today.”
Marie believes sport can be a part of this solution. Through this mentorship program, Marie would like to create sports programs for the young people of Haiti. The programs would promote analytical skills in addition to the development of general life skills, with the ultimate goal of creating active and empowered citizens.
You’re only as good as your last byline. That’s the philosophy that drives May Chen, a budding sports journalist for The Straits Times in Singapore. As a sports journalist, May loves the challenge of a new day and a new story. “In the newsroom, every day is fresh. You never live the same day twice. No matter how good or how bad you were the day before, you get to wake up the next day and be better. And as one of a small handful of female sports journalists in the country, this motivates me.”
May comes from a family of extremely hardworking parents. May’s mother had a very difficult life as a child, but overcame many obstacles to become successful. Having a strong and determined mother not only inspired May, but it also gave her the strength to pursue her own dreams.
Combining her passion for sport, especially tennis, with her love of writing, May has charted a new path for women in Singapore – the path of a female sports journalist. At The Straits Times Sports Desk, May is one of only two females on a team of twenty. May is a beat writer for a number of sports, including tennis, badminton, table-tennis, and track and field, while becoming increasingly responsible for writing human-interest stories and commentaries.
As a young sports journalist, May has experienced tremendous success and proven herself deserving of newsworthy moments. In August of 2010, May was among 28 young reporters from 23 countries covering the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore as part of the inaugural International Olympic Committee Young Reporters’ Programme. For her incredible coverage and relentless work ethic, May was then awarded one of only two spots to cover the London Olympic Games in 2012.
Since then, May has been named Young Journalist of the Year for The Straits Times and given numerous special awards for excellence and consistently good work. Her persistence also landed her an exit interview with Jacques Rogge, former IOC president, and allowed her to break the story of the WTA’s selection of Singapore as the next host city for the WTA Championships.
Despite her success, May is hungry to learn more and to hone her talent. She’s also passionate about creating a more balanced newsroom, one that supports women as sports reporters as well as increased coverage of women’s sports. “In Singapore, like most other countries, men’s sports are the priority. Giving girls opportunities to participate in sports or sports careers would open up our society. As a nation, we shouldn’t box people in – only certain jobs for certain genders. When it comes to the news, there is no difference between what I do and what the guys do – I write, they write. Seems simple to me. And if we are open in the sports domain, it could open up avenues in other areas of society as well.”
Naira Abramyan was born in the capital city of Armenia. Naira is the middle child in a family of five. Her older sister is a professional dancer and choreographer, so Naira’s first love is dance. As a child, Naira was very active, trying her hand at a number of sports. Although she never played soccer, she has always been a passionate fan of football and FIFA World Cup matches in particular. This proved valuable later in life, as Naira is one of the only women in all of Armenia working in a sport management role.
Naira attributes the lack of women in the sports field to the cultural context and gender norms present in Armenia. According to Naira, the lack of equality between men and women not only affects the personal dynamics of family but also affects employment. “Women in my country are expected to dedicate themselves to having a family and taking care of the household. Most women in Armenia are not working. They are housewives only. And for the women and girls that do pursue a degree from the university and graduate, they are limited in the jobs they can choose. Most of the employers are males. Women can be smart and more experienced and still not get the job. This is something I would like to see change.”
Using her degree in International Relations, Naira has negotiated her way into a predominately male space as the Expert of the International Department and Manager of FIFA Transfer Matching System for the Football Federation of Armenia. In her current role, Naira serves as the main point of contact for international efforts and is solely responsible for all international transfers of Armenian National Team players. As a young female, Naira hopes to work her way into senior management, becoming a visible role model for other young women interested in a professional career in the sports industry.
“You aren’t born a leader. You develop skills to become a leader. You are given experiences and opportunities to refine those skills and develop a sense of confidence. Confidence comes with years of decision-making. And I want to be in a decision-making position. I am a woman of worth. And I want to learn what it takes to be a confident leader. This program is a great opportunity to learn these skills and make change for my country.”
Olga Dolinina grew up as an only child in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. While the other girls in the neighborhood were playing with dolls, Olga was busy playing games with the boys. She loved the adventure of being outside – climbing trees, playing catch, and kicking football. Although it was strange to her peers, her parents were supportive and the boys were inclusive. As a result, she learned many valuable lessons and insights that continue to serve her well today. “Playing with the boys, I learned to compete. They never once treated me like a girl. I never received any special privileges. I had to make my own way. From this, I learned quickly how to make it in a male’s world.”
Olga’s energy and competitive spirit carried over into other areas of her life as well. In school, she was very motivated to earn the best possible marks, and she did, graduating at the top of her class. She also developed an elite-level tennis game and became a volunteer and an educational and cultural event coordinator for her peers. High levels of social, athletic, and educational engagement followed Olga into the university, where she started her degree program in psychology while also becoming the first press officer for the regional Football Federation of Ukraine. During that time, she also worked as a part-time sports journalist at the Komanda, the All-Ukrainian Sports Newspaper.
“I have never been the type of person that can relax and do just one thing at a time. I want to take from life as much as possible. I want to experience things and feel emotions. I want to inspire others to see that these things are possible to do, even for women. People just need some motivation and energy and I want to be that example for them.” Olga’s enthusiasm has positioned her uniquely as one of the only women working in the field of sports administration in Ukraine. And one of only a handful of women employed by the prestigious Donbass Hockey Club in Donestsk.
As the head of Marketing and Public Relations, Olga is responsible for coordinating socially responsible projects and cultivating new interest in Donbass Hockey. Her dream is to be mentored by the NHL, “the best hockey system in the world.” Through the mentorship experience, she would like to learn how to develop programs and sporting events that encourage young girls to become more interested in hockey, both as participants and fans. Ultimately, she would like to see more females who aspire to work in the sports industry.
“Sport management in Ukraine is really developing and I see a lot of advantages to encouraging young women to be a part of this movement. There are certain things in this field that are easier for a woman to do. And it’s important to give them the opportunities to do this and let them experience success. Women in Ukraine need to feel included, need to exercise leadership, and need to know that they can help solve the problems we are facing in our society. Sports are a way for them to understand their power.”
Paula Korsakas grew up in São Paulo, Brazil. Her mother, father, brother, and sister, were all sports enthusiasts. Every weekend, they would meet in the garden and play games together. If they didn’t have the proper equipment, they would make racquets, nets, bases, and hoops from items around the house. They played basketball, volleyball, handball, tennis, and even games they created from scratch. When Paula was old enough to participate in organized sport, her parents encouraged her to play them all.
Paula’s mom was extremely influential in her life. She was a strong woman who believed in gender equality at home. She split the chores between the boys and girls, making no distinctions between them. Paula always admired her mother for making her brother help, and in many ways, this understanding of gender roles and equality influenced Paula’s life and career.
Paula began her career as a basketball coach while attending the University of São Paulo. Through her love of basketball and passion for spreading the game, she realized the opportunities to play basketball for girls paled in comparison to the opportunities for boys. As a second year student in the Sport Sciences Master’s degree program, she took on the role of head coach for a girl’s team in a project created by the University in partnership with the Ayrton Senna Institute aimed at increasing female exposure and access to sport. She was determined to ensure that girls had the same great experiences with basketball that she did growing up.
“For me, basketball allowed me to express myself. It helped me form my identity and develop new friends. I learned to train, to compete, and to be disciplined. The structure, the hierarchies that exist in life, disappeared on the court. As a player, I realized that sport can be a powerful tool for human development – physically, mentally, and socially. It has the ability to transform people and realities and to me, that is exciting.”
This understanding of sports and its ability to inspire individuals and transcend cultural barriers led Paula to her current work in the field of Sport for Development and Peace. Presently, Paula is a Program Manager of Sport for Human Development at the Sports Center of the University of São Paulo. Paula works as an advocate in the Sport for Social Change Network and as an expert leading training programs and seminars for sports practitioners interested in this field.
Paula’s dream is to create a nationwide network of women leaders in the sports movement in Brazil. She seeks to unite government entities, NGOs, and universities to tackle social issues facing women and girls and to build a new foundation for the democratization of sports within the country. With all eyes on Brazil in the coming two years, Paula is uniquely positioned to mobilize community stakeholders and create real change.
Sadia Mehwish was raised in the west central region of Pakistan, between the cities of Peshawar and Karachi in a town called Dera Ismail Khan (D.I. Khan). D.I. Khan is part of the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province (KPK) and is considered by U.S. authorities to be “one of the most volatile and dangerous areas of Pakistan, where women’s rights are especially limited.” In this semi-tribal region, educating women is discouraged and recreational sports for females are almost non-existent. In fact, there was a time in 2008 when Sadia was the only female she knew participating in sports in the entire region.
Despite the dangers, Sadia has committed her life to creating athletic opportunities for women and girls in her province. With the support of her family, Sadia attended university and in 2009, she completed her Master’s Degree in Health and Physical Education.
“In our community, it’s seen as such an awful thing for a female to go to school or college. My parents faced many challenges when I was a child. When I went to university, it was very hard on them. Even members of my own family were not supportive. But my parents, they believed in me. And I learned that in life you have to face the challenges. You have to do something positive for your family and your community. I want to make my parents and all of society feel proud.”
Since earning her Master’s Degree, Sadia has worked her way up to the position of Director of Physical Education at Frontier Education Foundation (FEF) Degree College for Girls. As a senior lecturer and director at the college, Sadia is responsible for preparing her students to become sports teachers, coaches, officials, players, and administrators. She coaches and trains athletes and organizes sports competitions within her college and beyond.
Through this program, Sadia is looking to learn all she can in the areas of sports education and administration. Her position at FEF affords her a unique platform to promote change for future generations of women in KPK. Nevertheless, she faces many obstacles, namely a dearth of resources, such as access to academic articles, as well as a lack of female role models. Sadia feels a great responsibility to take back all she can for the people of her country.
“I want to be the eyes for all those who cannot see the things I will see. I want to be the role model that people deserve. I want to convince them and motivate them to take initiative and be confident. In my country, people are scared. They are defeated. If I can take these steps, we can learn to move without hesitation or reservation. My movement can give hope to others and cause them to be brave. It will show them what is possible.”
Salhat Abbasova was raised in the capital city of Baku, Azerbaijan. Her father, an Olympic swimmer for Ukraine, was the one responsible for sparking Salhat’s initial passion for sport. Although his own disillusionment with the politics of sport ultimately led him to pursue a music career, his initial love for athletics and movement were a part of Salhat’s early childhood identity. This passion was later fostered through her involvement in physical education classes at school.
“Growing up, it was not really appropriate for girls to love sports or to be physically active. Outside of school, we were not encouraged to participate. There were very few opportunities for girls outside of the compulsory physical education classes at my school. Some parents at that time wrote notes to the principals to excuse their daughters from physical education classes. It was a different mindset, a different time.”
With the support of her parents, Salhat participated in physical education classes and fell in love with a number of team sports, including handball, volleyball, hockey, and gymnastics. Her prowess in handball eventually led to a spot on the national team for the Soviet Union. It was through this experience that Salhat came to understand the unique power of sport to transcend cultural barriers.
“During my time on the national team, there were a number of different nations that played together under the name of the Soviet Union. It was really enjoyable. We learned so much about one another and most importantly we learned that our individual countries should not surpass our team goals.”
This unifying experience on the court drove Salhat to study Sports Administration at the university, exploring deeper her fascination with the Olympic ideals and the ways Olympism is used to unite cultures and build peace among nations. Salhat’s education has opened many doors for her and ultimately positioned her to serve on the Organizing Committee of the Executive Board for the 2020 Summer Olympics bid in Baku.
Using her experiences in sports administration and management, Salhat would like to launch her own NGO that promotes sport as a tool for peace building and empowerment. Through her NGO, Salhat wants to educate underserved populations, particularly young girls in rural areas, as she views these girls to be the linchpin in creating a healthier society.
“Girls who are involved in sport are typically healthy, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. When these girls become mothers, they will not only know how to raise their daughters, but also their sons. Healthy mothers have and raise healthier children. Therefore, if we improve the lives of our girls through sport, we can create a new and healthy society.”
As a triplet, Racha grew up competing. With two sisters the exact same age, Racha was always looking for ways to shine. “My sisters were always the center of attention because they were identical. But I was always different. I am taller and I don’t look like them physically. No one knew I was a triplet. So I wanted to do something great with my life so people could see me.”
Racha attended a French Catholic school where she had the privilege of playing sports once a week. She had tons of energy and talent, so being active just one day a week was not enough. By the age of ten, Racha organized her first marathon. “I marked the course around the school and divided my classmates, ten per team. Each person ran a leg of the race until all 26 miles were complete.”
Besides running, Racha also had a great passion and talent for basketball. Her professor noticed her abilities at an early age and nurtured her talents by taking her to play basketball after school. When Racha turned 13, she was invited to participate in the most prestigious sports club in Beirut. Racha went on to play basketball professionally in Lebanon and had an illustrious ten-year career as the playmaker and captain of her team.
Because of her basketball talent, leadership qualities, and strong track record as a 2009 State Department Alumni, the U.S. Embassy appointed Racha as the Project Manager for their recently developed NGO “SAFE Association.” SAFE is a basketball program designed to reach some of the most remote villages in Lebanon, which are known to be hotbeds for anti-U.S. hostility. As Project Manager, Racha not only delivers the basketball training, but she also facilitates discussions around life skills development and conflict resolution. When she is not organizing clinics for the U.S. Embassy, Racha works as a psychomotor therapist, primarily with children with physical and learning disabilities.
Racha is excited to be a part of this program and to grow personally and professionally. Her dream is start a basketball clinic for girls, to give them a chance in a culturally appropriate space, to experience the educational and emotional benefits of sports. “In Lebanon, women have rights. But in the villages, women think the only job is to be a wife. Every few months, they have another baby. And they are not educated to know that life can be more than this. I want to use my sports reputation to encourage other women to be active and to dream bigger.”
Through this program, Racha is eager to learn how to encourage women and girls to be active and healthy through sports, especially in the villages. She is also anxious to be mentored in negotiation and management skills, such as event planning, fundraising, and community partnerships.
Wasfia Nazreen has always been attracted to the mountains. Growing up as a little girl in Chittagong, the hills of Bangladesh were never far from her. A self-proclaimed tomboy, Wasfia longed to play outside, to bring those distant hills into her purview. But in her society, there were many restrictions and a lot of emphasis was focused on a girl-child to make her the most suitable bride: “A “good” girl doesn’t play outside with the boys; there was only one objective – be the ideal girl suitable for a good husband!”
When Wasfia was thirteen, her parents divorced. Both remarried and started new families. Wasfia was sent to live with her aunt in Dhaka. Life in Dhaka was harder financially. In her new school, Wasfia began playing sports, excelling in handball and volleyball. In order to pay her school fees, Wasfia started tutoring at night to earn money for her high school tuition. Wasfia’s dream was to obtain higher studies in the West in order to be independent and stand on her own feet. She knew living the “American dream” could be one way out. Despite numerous obstacles, Wasfia received a full academic scholarship to attend Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. It was there that she studied art and psychology and developed a passion for social work.
As a student, Wasfia was involved in several anti-war movements, volunteering with various NGOs and international peace activist organizations, most notably, the Tibetan Freedom Movement. Her passion for peace and human rights development led Wasfia to Dharamsala, the exiled capital of Tibet, where her love for the mountains deepened.
“I was working with Tibetans who walked across the Himalayas to India or Nepal barefoot. The Tibetans and Sherpa peoples have a natural tendency to adapt to high altitude. Not many of them claim to be a “mountaineer” or “climber” despite their innate knowledge and skills of living in such harsh environments or reaching a summit.It’s a lifestyle there. Some people in other parts of the world go to the pub for a drink on the weekends. Tibetans go to the hills for a walk.” Like the Tibetans, Wasfia found peaceand healing in the mountains. For her, the journey was never about conquering the mountain, but about surrendering to it.
In 2011, on the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, Wasfia set out to climb the seven highest mountains on each continent, which by default, made her the first Bangladeshi ever to do so. This quest was her attempt to highlight the strides of Bangladesh as a country and the resiliency and strength of the nation’s women. She has already reached the summit of six continents and after the completion of the seventh she will be amongst the thirty-seven women in the world to have accomplished such a feat.
Yasmin Helal was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and attended a private school. As a child, she was stubborn and introverted. School was a breeze for Yasmin and didn’t challenge her in the ways she needed to be challenged. This ennui led to increased frustration and boredom. Yasmin’s mother suggested sport as a solution. Despite Yasmin’s initial lack of enthusiasm towards physical activity, her mother enrolled her in swimming lessons and a basketball league. This small act changed Yasmin’s life.
Through basketball, Yasmin was challenged mentally, physically, and socially – she learned to struggle, to compete, to set goals, to make friends, and to follow-through. Being on a team was a new concept for Yasmin, but one that gave her a sense of belonging and a higher purpose. “Basketball became my everything. It was my school for life. It taught me the importance and responsibility of being on a team, it taught me to set goals, it helped me to express myself, it allowed me to make true friends, and it helped me develop into a leader. These were not lessons I could find in school.”
With her mom’s support, Yasmin later went on to play for the Egyptian National Team. While playing professionally, she also attended Cairo University, where she studied Biomedical Engineering. Because of the difficulty of this major, Yasmin was one of the only students in her very male-dominated department to participate in any extracurricular activities. Despite the intensity of the program, Yasmin flourished, graduating with the highest honors and Top Ten in her class. She then accepted a job as a Radio Network Engineer for the telecom giant, Alcatel-Lucent. In just three short years, she was one of the company’s top performers.
According to Egyptian standards, Yasmin had it all – an excellent job, a prestigious degree, a spot on the National Team, a supportive family, and impressive socioeconomic status. And then one day, Yasmin encountered a beggar on the street who completely changed her understanding of life and human purpose. “I met a man on the street who asked me for money to send his children to school. I asked how much and he said, ‘$8 per child.’ I couldn’t believe it. That’s nothing; it’s like the same as a Burger King combo. I asked him to meet me the next day at the school so I could learn more. From there, I started a Facebook campaign among my friends to encourage them to give $30, which would cover the school fees, uniforms, and books for one child for an entire year. That was the beginning of Educate-Me.”
Shortly after this encounter, Yasmin left her job and officially founded the nonprofit Educate-Me. After a few months of research, she soon realized that the education system was failing the students they were paying to attend. Regardless of age, grade, or gender, most all of the students Yasmin met with were illiterate, even after attending school for more than a year. So Yasmin shifted her focus from supporting student attendance to creating a comprehensive after-school program based on the idea of “Dream-Driven Development.”
Yasmin’s program provides choices for students in very impoverished areas to pursue their dreams in education, sports, and the arts. Through this creative enrichment program, Yasmin is able to offer a number of courses in which students can choose their own paths for education and fulfillment. Currently, she works with more than 120 children and 20 mothers. Through the GSMP, Yasmin would like to learn how to scale up the sports components within Educate-Me, especially focusing on the broader concepts of physical activity and active play.
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