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Sarah Hillyer has made multiple trips to Iran and is planning another trip for March 2008. Her mission: Train softball players and play the sport she loves.
A doctoral student in sports sociology, Hillyer's trips have been made possible by Global Sports Partners, a nonprofit group that works with nearly 50 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and East and Southeast Asia to help develop sports programs and to foster the idea of sport as a tool for peace.
Hillyer has been involved with Global Sports Partners since 1993 and has traveled to Iran eight times.
In December 2006, Hillyer went to Iran to help train coaches and umpires for an Iranian softball league for college-age women. The Iranian government invited Global Sports Partners to train the women so that one day the country may have teams that could compete on an Olympic level.
In the summer of 2007, Hillyer went to play in the first ever Friendship Cup Softball Tournament.
"Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, it is almost impossible to receive a visa from within the U.S," she said.
During their summer 2007 trip, Hillyer and her group had to go through Amsterdam and Istanbul.
"We arrived in Istanbul and we made our way down to the Iranian Consulate. Step one: pulling hejab (Islamic head covering) and manteux (Islamic long overcoats) out of our backpacks and dressing ourselves in the appropriate Islamic attire.
"We received countless glances and possibly even more stares from pedestrians passing by. I'm sure we stood out. After all, we were eight very athletic-looking American females donning Islamic attire about to enter the Islamic Republic of Iran's Consulate -- not a sight people see every day. In fact, we were only the second American women's team to compete in Iran since the Islamic Revolution since 1979. The first was our basketball team in 2002," she recalled.
At the consulate, the women picked up the paperwork, paid for the visas, made copies of all the documents and then turned them back in. They were told to come back the next day to pick up the visas. After much worry, the women were granted visas and were off to Tehran.
When Hillyer and the rest of the team arrived, they were greeted by the Iran Softball Federation, a camera crew and a photographer.
"Little did we know what a media frenzy our presence would create. We arrived at the hotel at 6:15 a.m., ate breakfast and rested until early afternoon. The vice president of the softball federation sent a driver for us to come to his office for a formal 'welcome' and to give us the schedule for the remainder of the week," she said.
All of the women, including Hillyer and her American teammates, had to be fully covered with long pants and shirts to adhere to Islamic standards."
"It was an emotional site for me. These were the same women I spent one month training in December 2006 and January 2007. When we saw each other, we embraced and shared in the excitement of the moment. This was their first opportunity to play on a national platform and against an international team. It was also the first time their fathers, brothers, uncles and male friends could watch them compete. In Iran, men are not allowed to watch women compete, but in this case we played according to Islamic law and dressed in veils and long uniform shirts that covered our thighs and hips," Hillyer said.
Hillyer's team consisted of women who played softball in high school or college in the U.S. or Canada. Hillyer played basketball at Liberty University and Virginia Tech and then coached softball at a college. The Iranian women had only recently learned to play after never even seeing the sport on television.
"The week of games was amazing! We played a different team every day and had the opportunity to encourage the women in a sport we love so much. The grounds surrounding the soccer field were filled with women on one side (moms, aunts, sisters and friends) and men on the other (fathers, uncles, brothers and curious on-lookers). The grass directly surrounding the field was covered with media crews, photographers and journalists," she said.
"This event was one of a kind in the history of Iran, and the media took full advantage of the opportunity to interview our team to inquire about the views of Americans about Iran.Many of the interviews turned very political, but we were focused on the opportunity for dialogue, peace and solidarity through sport. The event was an expression of the language of sport and the power it entails to bring people together," she said.
"It was difficult to leave them behind. We could have stayed forever playing with them and sharing in their lives," Hillyer said. "The Iranian people are very hospitable, warm, kind, and love American people. Events like the First Friendship Cup Softball Tournament probably won't ever make an impact on the diplomatic relations between our countries, but at least on a people-to-people basis we are making a difference through sport.