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At first there were a few tears. Then the woman began to shake and weep while hugging her new American friend. The words "thank you" were not enough.
The young woman is a catcher for her softball team in Isfahan, Iran, and until now, she had never had the luxury of using a mask, chest protector and shin guards. She had endured black eyes, a broken nose and bloodied lip while playing this new sport she has grown to love.
Sarah Hillyer, a doctoral student in sport sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has encountered many stories like this during her travels researching sport as a way to promote peace.
Hillyer spent a month traveling around Iran in May 2008 to coach young women who have only in the past few years learned to play softball. The entire Isfahan team received two large duffle bags of equipment -- a big improvement from the 1970s-era baseball bats and bases cut from scraps of carpet they were using.
The trip was one of the efforts of Sport 4 Peace, an organization created by Hillyer and fellow UT doctoral student Ashleigh Huffman. Sport 4 Peace provides camps and programs that use sport as a tool to make peace and to empower girls and women in countries where cultural, political, and religious obstacles may exist for them. Through the programs, Hillyer and Huffman gather data for their research.
Together the doctoral students 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.
They are working on plans for a camp in Knoxville that will be modeled after a similar camp held two years ago in Israel for Jewish, Muslim and Arab Christian girls. Huffman interviewed 16 Israeli and Palestinian girls at the camp, and many agreed the Sport 4 Peace experience had changed their world view and encouraged them not to trust the prejudices inherent in their society. Today, many of the girls remain friends despite the intense and sometimes hostile political environment.
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 are not as different as first believed.