Iraqi girls' soccer team visits Triangle to receive training, inspiration

sgilman@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2013 

Editor's note: This article incorrectly said Cary High soccer coach Laura Kerrigan was an Olympic gold medalist. Kerrigan was an All-American college player.

RALEIGH - On an indoor field at XL Soccer World, 11 girls and three coaches from Iraq kicked soccer balls and took instructions Tuesday from Laura Kerrigan, who teaches soccer at Cary High School.

“Outside foot, inside, and then I follow,” Kerrigan said as she demonstrated a soccer drill.

Arabic versions of the instructions echoed above the artificial turf as interpreters repeated Kerrigan’s words.

The first all-girl soccer team to visit the United States as part of the State Department’s Iraq Soccer Visitor Program has spent much of its 10-day trip in the Triangle. The high-school-age girls from Baghdad, Kirkuk and Irbil watched the NCAA Women’s College Cup tournament in Cary over the weekend and had a clinic Sunday with two-time Olympic gold medalist Cindy Cone, who works with the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina.

The clinic on Tuesday was the girls’ final clinic before returning home.

Since 2002, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has conducted international exchanges that include workshops for young athletes with professional coaches, as part of a strategy of “sports diplomacy” aimed at improving relations with other countries. In 2012, it launched something just for girls called the “Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports.”

Bureau spokeswoman Anna Griffin said sports participation helps girls succeed.

“Girls who participate in sports are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to hold down jobs, more likely to pursue higher education,” Griffin said.

Girls in Iraq face pressure from a culture that says sports are just for boys. The exchange program requires the girls to come up with an “action plan” for finding a way to promote sports for girls in their communities.

“That is the main reason they are here,” said Patty Hester, the group’s chaperone through the University of Tennessee, a partner of the State Department. “They get to do the soccer, they get to go to the games, and that’s all amazing, but the point of it is that these women and girls, we believe, can make a change.”

The teenage girls at XL Soccer World knew they would be returning to a place where it is difficult to play soccer.

What the girls want

“Every girl and every woman stays away from sports because of security issues,” 16-year-old Sarah Sameen Yasen said through an interpreter. “I want to prove to the others that this is not a reason to stay away from sports.”

Yasen said she planned to return home with her new knowledge and share it with her peers. The girls, she said, would probably tell her, “You are very courageous and very strong.”

Though she said she could sometimes be in danger, she said, “I’m not scared. I love sports to the point that I accepted to come here to the States and participate in this program.”

Mawj Nabeel Mohammed Al-Gailani, 16, said she started playing soccer because she loves the game, but gets teased by boys for playing. She said she does not let it affect her.

“I ignore them,” she said. “I listen in one ear and let what they say out the other ear.”

Built on a partnership

This trip was organized after Olympic medalists Mary Harey and Lorrie Fair partnered with the State Department and visited Iraq to work with young female athletes last April. They held clinics in Baghdad, Basra and Irbil to teach girls and coaches better soccer skills.

According to Griffin, the U.S. embassy responded by saying, “Okay, now how do we do the exchange in the other direction?”

The State Department approved the request to send a team of Iraqi girls to the United States, and the embassy worked with local coaches and teams to select the girls.

“These girls have leadership qualities,” Griffin said. “They may want to be coaches and teachers one day.”

Afiaa Kareem Taresh Chnani, 17, said she already teaches soccer to children ages 6 to 16.

“It’s a great thing to teach people new things,” she said through an interpreter. “I hope to transfer these things (I’ve learned) to my country so my players can benefit from these drills.”

Yasen also said she wanted to take back her newfound knowledge of soccer.

“That’s why I’m here, because I want to learn how to be able to teach,” she said. “I learned new skills, new exercises, new techniques I can take back with me to my home country and implement them so my other teammates who are still in Iraq can benefit from the skills that I’ve learned here in the States.”

In addition to the soccer skills she gained, she wanted to share that women should be able to play sports.

“Whatever rights the men have, the women should have the same rights,” she said.

The girls depart for Iraq on Thursday night. That morning, they will present their plans for promoting soccer to girls in their communities to members of the State Department, who will follow up with the girls and encourage them to stick to their goals.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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