Beyond the finish line

In a society where gender roles are shaped and curtailed by cultural norms, women and girls in Iraq face a number of barriers that often prevent them from participating in athletic activities. Free to Run, an innovative nongovernmental organization, empowers women and girls to safely and boldly engage in sports in conflict areas such as Iraq. Your support today will empower Iraqi females and change prevailing views about their roles in society.

I first worked with Free to Run in the fall of 2019. At the time, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Coordinator at the US Consulate in Erbil wrote asking if we could help. Free to Run, which had previously received Department of State funding, was organizing a 10k race for girls. One thing was missing: race t-shirts and medals. They can’t race without those, I thought! We quickly approved funding.

Twenty-one girls ran 10 kilometers while members of the US Consulate cheered them on. Such a simple act; such profound consequences. Afterward, each girl received a t-shirt and a medal, commemorating not only her completion of a challenging event but also for helping redefine the role of young women in public spaces. One of the participants, Baraa, barely able to contain her glee, declared, “It is an amazing feeling when you are an Iraqi girl and running in front of foreign people. I felt so proud and happy. I initially only wanted to run the 5k, but I decided to push myself. I’m so happy I made myself complete the 10k because I’m now really proud of myself!”

Twenty-one girls.
Twenty-one lives changed.
Twenty-one families that can imagine different possibilities for their daughters.
Twenty-one is the start.

It’s such an elevation in consciousness—the sort of program results that are particularly difficult to quantify—that made that small project so impactful.

When, two months ago, another occasion to support Free to Run arose, we jumped at the opportunity. Working with the US Consulate, we put together a more comprehensive initiative designed to develop Free to Run’s ability to organize events and activities to empower girls and change prevailing views about their roles in society. With Spirit of America’s support, Free to Run will implement the following:

  • Life Skills through Sports: a program that teaches girls communication, conflict mediation, and leadership skills.
  • Community Development Leaders: an initiative that recruits program alumni to help lead new cohorts. Participants receive advanced training on activity facilitation, curriculum content, and leading participants.
  • Safe Spaces: work with camp management to designate and operationalize safe spaces for girls and women to utilize for races and outdoor activities.
  • Weekly outdoor training sessions, including running, hiking, cycling, and well-being discussions.

One of the first events in our ongoing partnership with Free to Run was a 5k race at Sami Abdul Rahman Park in Erbil in late July. Nineteen girls, cheered on by 39 family and community members, ran in the race. Though it was still stiflingly hot outside, all 19 achieved their goals and completed the race to cheers and applause.

Fulla, who finished in second place, best captured the essence of the race. Speaking of other participants, she explained, “They are my friends and like sisters. I love all of them and looking forward to continuing together and accomplishing other goals. We began together and hope to end together. I am thankful to our wonderful coaches. Free to Run changed my life. It is a good [thing] happening in my life, and I will never forget these beautiful days which made me meet with many good people.”

Nineteen girls.
Nineteen lives changed.

Zack served in the US Army and Army National Guard from 1997 to 2008, completing four overseas deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
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3033 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22201

Follow Us

No endorsement of Spirit of America by the US Department of Defense, Department of State, or US personnel is intended or implied.

“You don't have to wear a uniform to serve the nation.™” and “Patriotism without politics.™” are trademarked by Spirit of America.

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