For diaspora communities across the globe, sport continues to be an integral connection to their native countries.  Sport is tightly woven into the lives and cultures of people globally and has an inherent and unique ability to connect people and provides the ability to transform some of the world’s least developed countries. While sport has historically played an important role in virtually every society globally, sport is still seen as an emerging, yet powerful tool to advance development globally.

Mori Taheripour is senior advisor for Sports for Development at USAID with Minnesota Vikings player Madieu Williams.

At this week’s Global Diaspora Forum, I had the privilege to lead a panel of notable players in the field of sport for development to discuss how sport plays an integral role in diaspora communities as a platform to better the lives of youth, families and communities.

The panelists included:

Madieu Williams, Safety with the Minnesota Vikings, who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone at the age of 9.  While he had never heard of American football until he came to the US, the sense of community and belonging to a team that it provided him proved a winning path that led him to his career in the NFL.  But never forgetting where he came from, Madieu created his own foundation as an vehicle to give back to Sierra Leone, providing teacher training, uniforms and school supplies for the kids,  He has also partnered with Healing Hands, a US-based NGO, to travel to Sierra Leone and perform surgeries free of charge for many of the children, men and women too poor to have those services.  His efforts earned him the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011, recognizing his contributions both on and off the field.

Rahuel Brahmbhatt, General Manager of Magic Bus USA, shared his own story of returning to his homeland of India to teach conflict resolution to youth in the Indian slums through Ultimate Frisbee. His firsthand experience of seeing the power that sport can play in changing lives led him to Magic Bus USA, a non-profit that funds programs designed to help marginalized communities break out of the cycle of poverty through the belief that sport and play can be valuable tools of empowerment for these individuals and communities.

Hisham Elkoustaf, Executive Director and General Counsel, Los Angeles Futbol Club Foundation, spoke passionately about how sport has the ability to unite diverse diaspora groups, and that by building a solid infrastructure of fields allows for cultural understanding to take place on the field of play.

Fabian Koss, Youth Program Coordinator, Office of External Relations, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who is from Argentina, shared how he advocated for sport for development at IDB, and despite some initial skepticism, sport for development has become a leading focus of investment at the IDB.  Over the years, IDB has invested in sports-based initiatives that have played a powerful role in development in Latin America and Caribbean countries that reduce poverty and inequality.

Kasia Muoto, Founder and President, We Play to Win, a Nigerian native, shared how sport has played a critical role in her life. Having contracted polio as a child, sport was used as rehabilitation therapy, strengthening her limbs and served as one of the tools used to overcome the disease.  We Play to Win is a non-profit organization that uses sport as a vehicle to engage, educate, inspire and empower disadvantage youth in Nigeria, with a particular focus on young girls. Kasia has also partnered with many NFL players of Nigerian descent who have wanted to be involved in the important work of We Play to Win.

The audience was able to hear stories about sport’s unique ability to bring together different groups in a community, bridging separation in ethnic, gender, and class, taking away the understanding that the role of sport in development cannot be underestimated.  In collaboration with our partners, USAID has the opportunity to shape and strengthen the role of sport in global development and I am privileged to play a part in this important effort.