For Sara Ramirez, she doesn’t know another way.
If you’ve coached in the Arizona Region the past few years, you have probably seen her at tournaments, or maybe heard her. She is almost always smiling, has dark beautiful eyes that can look through you and her calling card: a laugh that is a hybrid between Woody Woodpecker and the sputter of a diesel engine. She is engaging and brings a heightened sense of how charmed she finds her life and how much more you should appreciate yours.
This morning, as you read this, she is waking up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been there since July and she spends 6 days a week trying to make the lives of Syrian refugees a bit more tolerable.
There are 28,000 refugees in Greece which is also in the worst economic crisis in its history. We sit at the breakfast table and read our papers or watch the news on TV. Maybe we’ll see the crawl at the bottom of our phones and iPads. The refugee crisis: we shake our heads and mumble something about it being too bad and how sorry we feel for those people.
Those people are who Sara has given the next year of her life to.
She was a high school volleyball player in El Paso, played at Mesa and South Mountain Community Colleges and has done some coaching with club, school and some church camps and groups. She spent some time in the Middle East on mission trips but this mission is a year, her 28th on the planet. She is donating it to people she doesn’t know half way around the globe. To people she may never see again and are in an impossible situation of frustration, depression and living out the fear of prison, violence and even death.
She decided a few months before she left to combine her love of helping people and volleyball. She envisioned a clinic in one of the camps long before she even arrived. “I just think sports are an international language.” She’s experienced. “I’ve been overseas several times before doing volleyball clinics, with refugees in Palestine. From there, I came away with the idea that you don’t need to know the language in order to play a sport if you’re trying to relate to people, if you’re trying to connect to them, if you’re trying to get to a place of trust. You put a ball on the court and everyone will understand what’s going on to some degree.”
“It just builds friendships in a foreign country. In this case, refugees who happen to be in the biggest crisis since World War II.” She says solemnly.
She took the steps to make her vision happen and enlisted the help of USA Volleyball. A call was made to get some balls and nets to Thessaloniki. Brian Swenty, an American teacher and volleyball coach for a High School in an army base in Germany answered the call and sent down volleyballs, nets and even some knee pads and uniforms.
Next, Sara needed a place to set up a net. In one of the four camps she works during the week, a space was freed up when a school inside the camp was closed. It was a cemented warehouse corner with a door, metal side panels and steel girders surrounding it.
In a two day window in mid August, having just been there a month, Sara’s vision started to become a reality. Her aid team got together and first looked at the space. They decided that instead of one net, they would combine the nets, make a longer thinner space and engage more players. They fixed one side of the net to the hinges of the door and the other side to one of the steel girders that rose up from the floor. The middle of the net sagged but a piece of rope was tied around a water bottle, which was tossed up and over the steel rafters in the ceiling and the net was now held up in the middle.
The third net was put to the side of the newly designated court and a smaller “kids” court was built with a net strung lower between two of the steel girders.
The next step proved a learning experience. Of the balls that were donated by Swenty’s high school program, half were brought out to begin play. Within minutes, all but two were gone. With little to nothing of their own, a volleyball was a birthday morning kind of event. The kids took them and ran leaving just two balls for the rest of the three courts.
Undeterred, Sara and her team pressed on. They got a few of the men in the camp to come out and play over the net. Soon more joined in. Younger boys played and even a few of the girls came out to the court. “Within the Islamic culture there is the norm where it’s male dominated but in a well educated Islamic culture there are people that do fight for female rights so they are not belittled.” Sara stated. “The stereotype is a male dominated Islamic culture but I’ve seen where a woman can be uplifted.”
Part of Sara’s vision was to be able to bring a sense of value to the women of the camps and yet another part was just to offer these refugees a distraction, if even for just a few hours, from a life without purpose, of uncertainty and a chance to forget.
“Ultimately, male or female, I long to bring dignity and to use my gifts and talents to restore and heal hearts.” She says smiling brightly. “To bring back to life what has been stolen. In this case, family members have been killed, Dads have been lost, Mothers have been lost. I just talked to a guy my age who’s Mom was killed a year and a half ago in Syria. Here he is, by himself, trying to figure out how to get to Germany or somewhere up north. Today, he got to play volleyball and have fun and enjoy himself. I thought he would be there for just a few minutes but he stayed for an hour and a half. I was so surprised. He speaks amazing English and told me yesterday, ‘I’m tired of translating for everybody.’ So today I told him I’m not going to bug him. I’m just going to let him enjoy himself and be a kid at heart and play. He wasn’t the best but it didn’t matter. He enjoyed himself.”
After 4 hours on the first day, the nets were taken down and the team began to throw other ideas around for the next day. Only two balls were brought out, the kids were given the court first followed by the men later. Sara played the entire time with the men on their court. In Syria, this would be taboo but she is trying to tackle some of these cultural biases. Not by knocking walls down, but by making holes in them to see what’s on the other side.
“The sport here is futbol, or what we call soccer, so volleyball is a new and not a known sport but it’s an understandable sport; they know the concept of it. That allows me to come in and me being a female playing against all these men allows me to earn their respect in a future conversation or a future decision. It allows me to share my faith and encourage them to be more receptive because we are using a sport as a platform.”
Sara saw the men on her court embrace her play and even seek her out when new teams were picked. The men in camp played for two hours. “I thought that was great but I saw that as more of a long term development today and yesterday.” She said after the second day. “My original idea of camp was to speak to a people group that I can’t speak with by using the sport of volleyball, which I absolutely love. I don’t know their language so I am using volleyball as a vehicle to love on, to give dignity, to humanize these people because they are so dehumanized and so depressed and so sad.”
“They’re in their tent, all day every day for the last 6 months. These last two days, we were able to go into a little area and play volleyball for four hours and sweat and compete and laugh , and get kids playing. Mainly it was boys which was somewhat unfortunate.” She says. “It’s a man driven culture and so automatically girls aren’t allowed to play because the boy’s took the courts over. I took so much excitement when one or two girls would show up. I want all these boys to know that this girl is important, she is amazing and no matter what she does in this moment, she is going to be praised. They were screaming and yelling at this little girl. I was telling them in Arabic to stop it and this little girl, Fatima, got to hit a ball three times. She saw me at the end of the day and ran up into my arms, ‘Sara! Sara!’ She’s a Kurdish little girl who’s probably about 6 years old and the Kurds in Syria are looked down upon and depreciated and super devalued and here she is in this camp, pushed away by these kids and in that moment I get to praise her and love on her and who knows what she’s been through but she’s the most excited happy little girl.”
The kids are in an impossible situation. Most crave school but don’t have many options. Most will grab a soccer ball and go out into the asphalt parking lot to play between trash cans. It’s all they have and Sara was adamant that volleyball be a vehicle for them in particular.
“You don’t want these kids to lose that sense of joy and excitement. I feel like they are losing their childhood minute by minute so having a volleyball camp, or in this case, ‘beautiful chaos,’ created a 3 to 4 hour window of just being a kid. What do kids do? They play. These kids got to play. Yes, they play soccer all the time in the camps but that’s just one sport and not everyone can participate in. You’ve got your top 15 guys that play every single day and no one else can play so this created a new avenue for whoever to come by. I even saw some of the soccer players come by and they didn’t know how to play and they were too shy to get on the court and show off because they weren’t capable of it. So that’s just a couple of things I noticed over the past 48 hours.”
“In talking with a lot of the guys they asked me, ‘Are you coming back tomorrow?’ I said no, I’d be back next week. I had to go to another camp and work on clothing distribution but I’d be back. And they said, ‘Okay, you call me when you come back.’ So just to see these men have so much fun and they said, ‘you’re a good volleyball player. Am I good?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, you are a good volleyball player too.’ I just see it happening. I have to put a net up. I have to find a way to keep doing this, even if it’s as simple as passing a volleyball around, with the girls or at the other camps.
Sara made a few contacts in her two days at the camp. The next week, she took the nets back. “I feel like this experience is about risk and stepping out and not expecting perfection but expecting something to happen. It’s so hard to talk to people in the camp because I’ll say, ‘How are you, what did you do today?’ They did the same thing they did yesterday, they sat in their tents again all day long. So that’s the extreme that I want volleyball to be; a gift, even if it’s just for an hour or 30 minutes.”
“My heart and my hope is that through everything I do, usher the presence of God through his joy in the most accessible way. It’s loving the person in front of me, it’s stopping for the one. Today I got to stop for many in a court, with a volleyball over a net; ‘beautiful chaos.’ I got to hold so many kids and got to play with so many girls, got to converse with men and give them respect. I got to congratulate people when they did something amazing. Congratulate people even when they messed up, you know? Do it again, don’t give up. When my heart enters a court, my heart comes alive. When I hold a volleyball or see a net, my heart comes alive. I don’t want to ever, ever keep that to myself. That’s a gift that God is giving me and it’s just been a saving grace for my own life.”
And so for two incredible days under the hot August sun in Thessaloniki, Greece, one woman’s vision came together. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew it was going to happen. It was very unique; nothing like it in the world. We were in a warehouse. That area that we played in was a school and it had gotten taken down. So last week that area became free. It was awesome. We used steel as a knife to cut the rope and we tied a rope to a water bottle to toss it over a high beam to hold the net up in the middle. Together, we made a court. We had a court and it was amazing. You can’t play volleyball without a net.”
Every day in the lives of the refugee camps, curve balls are the only norm. Friends that are made are shipped out. Sara is bracing for 1000 more families to come into the four camps she services in the next month. Her team is working with the Greek government to overcome visa issues. With all this over her head, Sara continues to do her work: meraki.
A life changing experience like this can only make a coach better, no matter the athlete. “My philosophy doesn’t change. I want to coach the heart. The heart is the least coached muscle in the body and I am determined no matter which athlete is in front of me, they are going to leave my hour with them, my 15 minutes with them, my minute with them knowing that I loved their heart well and they’re going to love themselves more. It adds onto my tool belt as far as experiences. Here you have people who have absolutely nothing; they have the clothes on their back, they have no money, everything has been taken away, they’re stuck and depressed. Here I have an opportunity to laugh with these kids, to laugh with these guys and these ladies and to enjoy this game and see their hearts come alive day after day and when I go back it just continues on. Every human has a heart, every human has dreams and passions and I want to help bring those back to life in whatever way it looks like.”
There is fittingly an ancient Muslim saying that translated is: ‘Do good, then throw it into the sea.’ The idea being your good deeds may be counted by your better angels but they are not recorded, not spoken of or bragged about. They are done and then quietly you move onto your next.
Sara Ramirez stares out over a hillside and sighs. It hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but there were well over 100 men, women and children who played volleyball those two days in August because of her. She smiles again, brightly. “It’s just awesome. I just love this world and I love people and I want to do whatever I can to give of myself freely and today and yesterday was volleyball.”
Listen closely and you can hear the splash in the Aegean Sea…