Iraqi women find refuge in basketball

Twenty-year-old Ola can no longer hold back tears. The Baghdad native isn't crying because extremists threatened her family two years ago, or because her homeland faces constant civil unrest. Ola is fighting tears because she's just been put on academic probation, which means she can't play basketball.

"It's like my soul for me," she explains.

It's a tender scene from the uplifting new documentary "Salaam Dunk," which screens at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival in early October. The film chronicles the emotional second season of the charming and irrepressible women's basketball team at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), while also touching on gender roles and cultural stereotypes.

"[I wanted] to tell a story about a women's basketball team, where some of the issues they face are specific to Iraq, while others are universal," said director David Fine, a former high school All-American in lacrosse. "The role basketball played in their lives was so interesting -- a stark contrast to where they had been."

The way they were

Whether Arab or Kurd, Shiite or Sunni, students of all ethnicities and sects come from far and wide to attend AUIS, an English-instruction private university in Sulaimani, Kurdistan, considered by school officials to be one of the safest places in the country. The university started a women's basketball program in 2009. Unlike in other collegiate programs, the players aren't recruited. Quite the opposite.

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Laylan, who grew up with bomb explosions and gunfire outside her house, talks with then-coach Ryan Bubalo.

"They recruited me to coach them," said then-coach Ryan Bubalo, who left a fellowship at the University of Mississippi to teach English at AUIS. "They've never been jogging before. Most of them had never touched a ball with their hand."

For many young Iraqis, especially those in war-torn southern cities like Baghdad and Kirkuk, the environment was too volatile to play sports. In a bitingly honest scene, the team's co-captain, doe-eyed 20-year-old Laylan, recalls the sounds of bombs and gunfire outside her childhood home in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein was allegedly hiding on her street.

"I became angry there all the time," the normally spirited Laylan admitted of her environment, via Skype. "I wasn't really myself."

"From 2003 and onwards, this was the time they really couldn't get outside the house," explained Bubalo. "For everyone it was a really dangerous time, but for women, it basically meant their existence was to go to school and come home. I think it's why basketball has weirdly taken off for women at the university."

Love and basketball

Basketball has become an outlet for these young Iraqi women, an escape from trying situations in the past and a beacon of hope for the future. But becoming a team wasn't easy. Considering many of these young women had never even run before, their first practice was -- to put delicately -- challenging.

"Some people wore high heels and were laughing and giggling. Of course, that made Ryan really angry," Jwan, this year's team captain, said via Skype. "He made us run a lot for giggling, but we became really serious and a real team after running a lot."

"We spent the first year just to understand the concept of teamwork and being on a team," recalled Laylan. "It was hard for us to be a part of a team and to help each other. It's an obvious concept but we just needed to practice that. We love each other a lot."

The film captures their love for one another and for the game. It's a purity that leads them to shoot free throws in the rain, or run layup drills at a hoop in the middle of nowhere. They don't play for fame, scholarships, or money; they play because they can.

"They worked incredibly hard to play the game and get better because they love it," said Fine. "It's not an opportunity they're used to."

"[Iraq] is still a place where women are expected to fill certain roles in the family and society," said Bubalo. "While that's changing a little bit for a lot of the girls, this was their first time to step outside those kinds of roles."

One might say they took the opportunity basketball presented and, quite literally, ran with it.

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