Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Documentary Series Showcases Healing Through Sports

Shireen Ahmed

Filmmaker Shana Vassilieva went to Egypt and Jordan to film the contributions of four Global Sports Mentoring Program participants who are enriching the lives of girls and women by providing tools and life skills through sports.

Five years ago, the U.S. State Department, espnW, and the Center for Sport, Peace and Society (CSPS) at the University of Tennessee partnered to create the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), an organization through which female athletes teach women of all ages in regions where geopolitical and social instability is a frightening reality.

In a documentary series released over the last few months, filmmaker Shana Vassilieva went to Egypt and Jordan to film the contributions of four GSMP participants who are enriching the lives of girls and women by providing tools and life skills through sports. Vassilieva’s work suggests that GSMP is using a sustainable model by mentoring local teachers—a potentially fraught conclusion given the rapidly shifting landscape of the State Department under the current presidential administration.

The Stories

GSMP partners with existing sports activists, mentors, and advocates of girls in sports to help build up existing programs and create new ones. The GSMP blog details more than 60 countries in which it has supported projects that have used sports as a vehicle to empower women and girls.


One of the stories Vassilieva caught on film was that of Jordanian youth worker Dima Alardah, who participated in GSMP in 2014. Alardah was hired by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to offer educational projects that helped with psychosocial learning—which aids in healing from trauma and in normalizing reactions to difficult lived experiences—for women in the Zataari refugee camp outside of Amman, Jordan.

Zataari is the second-largest refugee camp in the world. What was meant to be a temporary shelter run by the United Nations for people fleeing the terror of Syria has now become Jordan’s fourth-largest city, home to approximately 80,000 refugees. There, where young girls are recovering from trauma and only receiving basic amenities such as food, shelter and elementary schooling, programs such as Alardah’s provide an opportunity for safety, a healthy lifestyle, and play.

Sports are not always considered by society to be a necessary part of recovery from trauma. But Alardah, who was born in Jordan, admits in the film that sports can change lives. In the documentary, she explains how being a serious badminton player changed the trajectory of her career. She thought that if sports made her independent, it could do the same for others. She left her job as an architect and opened Shuttlers, the first badminton school in the Middle East. From there, Alardah researched ways she could use sports as a vehicle for development in different communities and to empower women.

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Through her own research, Alardah found GSMP and was one of 17 women selected to be part of the program in 2014. With additional support from the NRC, she is able to use her skills as an athlete and an educator to help people in Zataari normalize sports and healthy living as they move forward in their lives.

In the film, Alardah says: “I am trying to teach these women how important sport is, so they can teach their children.” By doing so, she says, she hopes to demonstrate that women and girls are capable of progressing in their education with or beyond athletics.

The second documentary, released in early 2017, features Batoul Arnaout, a former national squash player, avid runner, and cyclist. As a Jordanian woman, she is able to weave sports into the lives of Middle Eastern women in a manner that understands the culture and the needs of her community. Batoul started cycling after an elbow injury prevented her from continuing in squash. She persevered and brought her tenacity to a program she created, called Better Opportunities and Options for Sports Today (BOOST), focusing on promoting women’s cycling in Jordan.

“I believe that Jordan [and the Arab countries] need more of these women … these strong and dedicated women … achieving things,” she says in the film.

Batoul was invited to GSMP in 2015 and considers it a very valuable life experience. The friendships and camaraderie help her continue her work, she says, by creating a support system of colleagues with similar goals.

In the third documentary, meanwhile, we meet former professional Egyptian basketball player Yasmin Helal, who in 2011 started Educate Me, a nonprofit focusing on young children in economically challenged neighborhoods in Cairo, Egypt. She attended GSMP in 2015 and learned how to incorporate sports into her programs, specifically using soccer as a way to teach boys about respecting girls by having them play each other in matches. Since then, she has hired more than 30 local women to teach programs to preschool and elementary-level kids.

The final film centers on Hayam Essam, founder of Girl Power, an organization that works with girls in Cairo, Egypt. As a basketball player for more than 20 years, she gives poor girls in the region a rare chance to access sports, as shown in the documentary.

The reality is that sports are a privilege—and they might be out of reach when a family is struggling. As Essam says, “If you’re someone who [has] never seen any female play sports before, how can you believe you can play sports? Or that it is even something that you are entitled to, to begin with.”

Although the girls gather only once a week for a two-hour practice, the effect of Girl Power is visible onscreen. Many of the girls who attend have never been exposed to sports programs, and the filmmakers linger on their smiling faces as they dribble, play, and cheer. Though Essam welcomes volunteers, she relies on women from her area to help with this project.

GSMP as a Tool and Resource

As Courtney Szto, a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University whose research focuses on race, gender, and sports in society, put it in a 2015 research paper, “Western feminists, self-positioned as the benchmark for modernity, commonly take it upon themselves to to liberate these so-called ‘underdeveloped’ women.”

In this same vein, any project that occurs in a different country and is funded by a world superpower is something I am normally reluctant to support, especially given the heated political climate currently in the United States. Before I began the documentaries, I wondered: Is the GSMP a project that benefits the women locally? Is it sustainable?

Given the fact that the films feature women who have dedicated themselves to helping their own communities, I am optimistic.

Such locally centered programs, after all, have precedent: namely, YUWA, an educational and soccer program in Jharkhand, India; and Skateistan, an educational and skateboarding program that began in Kabul, Afghanistan, and has expanded to facilities in Cambodia and South Africa. In all three cases—GSMP, YUWA, and Skateistan—the programs are facilitated by local women who can then employ and involve other women. Instead of simply sweeping in and implementing changes, the program organizers create a system that encourages employment of local women, including athletes.

“Ultimately, the intent of our project is to raise awareness about the value and potential of sports and physical activity for women and girls around the world. There are unique qualities that sport and play bring to the mind, body, and heart of all humans—when sport is used for the intentional purpose to empower, heal, and inspire,” Dr. Sarah Hillyer, CSPS program director, told me. These stories “are all important stories to share because they are ultimately about creating a world of equality, inclusion, and peace,” she continued.

Hillyer explained that having a team of filmmakers who understood the magnitude of the project was essential in order to capture the deeply complex and overwhelming emotional nature of people who are suffering from war but finding hope through sports.

Indeed, after returning from filming, Vassilieva shared her experiences on her blog: “For all the stories within this initiative, I am pleased to say that our footage adds to the research and stats that reveal—women who are empowered correlate with healthier thriving communities,” she wrote.

As a viewer, I felt that GSMP organizers and Vassilieva all understand that healing is not linear. Women need emotional and physical support in order to overcome trauma, to survive poverty, and to set goals for themselves. In these programs, survivors of conflict have a healthy outlet to discuss their hopes and dreams. Girls get to play and are trained in sports in a manner that is helpful and necessary.

However, neither the program nor the documentaries obscure the issues facing women and girls. Sports are a part of a means to help women heal—but not the only solution. For example, the framework around supporting registered refugees is a complex one; programs such as the ones offered by GSMP offer extra support and access to services, but not shelter or other basic needs. And as research has indicated, the longer-term effects of these programs are still unknown.

It will be interesting to see what direction the U.S. State Department takes under the new government. It is hardly an advocate of empowering foreign people—however innocent those people might be. And its disdain towards refugees is no secret.

GSMP is in its second cycle of grant applications. Though I reached out to the State Department for a comment about whether it intends to continue funding the program, its representatives did not reply.

In the meantime, though, as shown in the documentaries, Alardah, Arnaout, Helal and Essam, and others involved with GSMP have created an environment where women are finding hope, peace, love, safety, and strength through exercise, sports, physical activity, and the sense of belonging that comes from moving the body for better health and well-being.

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