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Iraqi women who play basketball in a future Olympics may be able to thank UT doctoral student Sarah Hillyer for getting them on track.
Hillyer, a doctoral student in sport sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, spent two weeks in July 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, an organization she founded and oversees with fellow UT student Ashleigh Huffman. Sport 4 Peace provides sports camps and programs that use sport as a tool to promote 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 in sport sociology.
Hillyer also spent May in Iran, coaching softball.
The Lady Vols provided some basketballs, and coach Pat Summitt videotaped a message to the Iraqi women and sent a video tape 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, ages 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 Iraq 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."