Listen and Learn: A visit to the First Afro-Arab Sitting Volleyball Club Championship

Earlier this month, I was pleased to spend time in Cairo, Egypt to attend the first-ever Afro Arab Sitting Volleyball Club Championship. The tournament was the result of a strong collaboration between the Egyptian Minister of Youth and Sport, Dr. Ashraf Sobhi, and Ehab Hassanein, President of ParaVolley Africa (PVA) and the Arab Federation for Sports with Disabilities, with the generous support of Dr. Fahd Al-Faquir, the head of the PVA’s Arab Sitting Volleyball Committee and the event’s key sponsor. I enjoyed meeting the athletes from 12 men’s teams that gathered in Cairo for the competition. There were a few familiar faces playing on different teams, and many, many new athletes to meet and watch.

During my week in Cairo, I was joined for the first few days by my colleague and fellow World ParaVolley Board Member, Anton Raimondo, a Paralympian and President of ParaVolley South Africa who serves on the WPV Board as the Development Director. Anton and I focused our days together on discussions to establish more WPV education within the region, including collaboration with coaches, classifiers, technical officials, and administrators. We met with Dr. Kareem Hassan Hammam, a professor and advisor to the Minister for Student Activities and toured The Institute for Leadership Development, a leadership campus that hosts seminars and courses designed for theoretical and practical learning. It was an impressive campus and felt like a place where learning could happen in an environment optimized for thought and expression. We could envision World ParaVolley seminars, in cooperation with their scientific researchers and students, classifiers, coaches and more. True development. Anton has been hard at work identifying potential WPV development centres around the world and establishing programming like coaching courses and classification seminars to help increase our capacity within World ParaVolley.

On this trip, Anton, Ehab and I focused on identifying new candidates in the zone and new opportunities to run courses where these candidates can continue their education in various areas. I attended part of a coaches’ seminar during the tournament, run by Dr. Sharif Sallahaddin, Vice President of the Volleyball Committee of the Arab Union, and a noted author. Hearing from the coaches directly was a valuable experience for me and opened up a dialogue about how World ParaVolley is perceived around the world. I had the pleasure of working with four gentlemen at the WPV World Cup last November who are working their way through the pathway to becoming technical officials. One, Khaled Elhelaly, served as the Referee Delegate for this first Afro Arab Sitting Volleyball Club Championship and it was amazing to see him in action, using the information he gained at the World Cup to help and teach others in his zone.

Among the many highlights of my trip, meeting with the Minister of Youth and Sport Dr. Ashraf Sobhi on a few occasions was very meaningful. His presence and participation in the event is quite significant and demonstrates the level of importance placed on sitting volleyball in the ParaVolley Africa Zone. He has a sense of high energy in his presence, flanked by a very attentive security detail and aides, and his ability to maintain such a busy schedule demonstrates how seriously he takes his responsibility. Another highlight for me personally, was the ability to speak at many of the ceremonies to share the thanks and appreciation for the continued good work to advance sitting volleyball and beach paravolley among African and Arab nations. During my 30-plus years working in volleyball and beach volleyball, I had limited opportunity to spend extended periods of time in the African or Arab regions. As the first woman President of World ParaVolley, the experience was not lost on me and I appreciated every minute spent together with such passionate and dedicated people. From the volunteers, athletes, coaches, officials, and those supporting Para sport from all areas. It showed me firsthand the possibilities and the potential of what Ehab, Anton, and others are trying to accomplish in the zone.

The main highlight was also a moment of reality. I was honored to be invited on a live weekly program, broadcast to 19 Arab nations and hosted by Ehab. Ehab is also a Paralympian and actively involved in the leadership of many Para sports besides sitting volleyball. He hosts a weekly live program that was translated to me as a program focused on champions of sport for persons with disability overcoming challenges in life, and featuring stories of athletes, coaches, and others who work to support disability awareness in the region. The morning of the broadcast, as we were leaving for the television station, I was greeted by a new face in our car. My shadow for the day, my protection in the form of an armed escort courtesy of the Egyptian Police Forces. Once I understood his purpose, it gave me slight pause. Then it filled me with a sense of duty to know that this extra element of protection was meant to keep us all safe. His presence was greatly appreciated, as the events of the day included both the television studio appearance as well as a quick visit with other members of the Arab Federation to the new National Museum in Cairo. A moment to reflect on the rich history of Egypt while also enjoying a chance to take a break with new colleagues before we headed out to that evening’s Gala Party in honor of the teams and hosted by Dr Fahd.

The Gala was a fun evening to share with everyone involved, including the amazing event team that was hired to manage all areas of the tournament and did an excellent job. Dr Sharif Mahmoud led an army of event staff and volunteers who were amazing. I come from the event management industry and I appreciated the high level of work demonstrated by this team. Bright smiles after long hours, kind words even when they worked all day and night. Before I left the Awards Ceremony on the last day, I turned around and saw the event staff gathering. I know that feeling, at the end of a long week with long hours and not much sleep. I ran back to say how much I appreciated their hard work, and while they made things look easy, I know from experience it was anything but easy for them. They were brilliant and I thank them and Dr. Sharif so much for the support and good work!

Saving the best for last, I wanted to give special thanks to my translator, Miss Rasha Ahmed. Rasha was my translator, my cultural guide, and my guardian angel during my stay in Egypt. She and her brother, Hossam, worked very hard behind the scenes to coordinate the 3-day General Assembly of the Arab Federation for Sports with Disabilities that happened at the end of the week. Nineteen Arab Federations participated, and for me, it was an honor to join them for the opening day. Perhaps the greatest honor was meeting Rasha’s Mother, who so kindly invited me into her home and gifted me with the most thoughtful souvenirs to commemorate my visit. What she did not know at the time, is that the most precious souvenir was taking home a new friendship with her and her family.

Congratulations to the Wissam Majad Club of Iraq, Champions of the inaugural Afro Arab Sitting Volleyball Club Championship. The silver medals were awarded to Future Bani Ghazi Club of Libya and the Saudi Riyadh Club won the bronze medals. During Awards Ceremony, the level of excitement among all the teams was strong, almost as strong as the open flame I almost walked into in my own excitement as it burst into the arena! The entire production was amazing, and left everyone in the arena clapping, cheering, and wanting more.

The question I received the most while at the tournament was “what did I look forward to in the second year of the Afro Arab Sitting Volleyball Club Championship.” My answer, the women’s competition.