Sarah Abd Elbaki describes rugby as her “refuge”, a sanctuary away from the Syrian crisis in which she has been able to grow in confidence both as a player and a person.
It is now three-and-a-half years since Abd Elbaki first picked up a rugby ball, and in that time she has achieved more than most will attain in a lifetime.
On the pitch, she has captained Syria, served as an assistant coach for the men’s national team and become the first woman to referee a domestic 15s match.
I am still speechless.What an opportunity!I just want to thank everyone who's supported me throughout my rugby journey. My responsibility is getting bigger each day and I am so keen to benefit from this scholarship as much as possible so I can keep on growing the game! 🙌🏼🙌🏼 https://t.co/eYOn2qHrjz— Sarah Abd Elbaki (@SarahElbaki) March 9, 2021
Unsurprisingly, Abd Elbaki is keen to share her passion with others. She has taken on responsibility for the development of the women’s game in Syria, and earlier this month became one of 12 recipients of this year’s World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
“Before rugby I was completely a different person,” she told World Rugby.
“It pushed me out of my comfort zone, it’s made me stronger and it's made me not only a better player or a coach, it made me a better person.
“It affected my personal life in so many ways. I believe it's a life-changing game, and that's why I want to support more women, because I want rugby to have the same impact on their lives as it did on mine.”
On what makes rugby so special to her, Abd Elbaki added: “It’s helped me a lot to go through some stuff, some hard times in my life.
“You know, the crisis that we live in, in Syria… I've been through some tough, tough times. I've been so stressed out.
“The situation was kind of bad around me and rugby was my refuge to get out of all of that. And, you know, when I'm on the pitch, I forget about everything.”
Leading women into rugby
Having not had a female role model to look up to when she first discovered rugby, Abd Elbaki wants to become that person for women across Syria, the Middle East and Asia.
“I hope to be in a place where I can lead more women into this sport,” she said.
“That's my ultimate goal, to grow women's rugby. I want more women to have more opportunities like this and to reach gender equality as well in this sport.
“I want more women to have the right to play this game without anyone telling them that you're not good enough.”
With her time already split between playing, coaching, refereeing and development, Abd Elbaki admits “it’s not going to be easy” to fit everything into her schedule over the next 12-18 months.
But Abd Elbaki, who originally applied for the scholarship in 2020, is keen to work on her development and hopes her involvement with the programme can help her hone the skills she needs for a successful career in leadership.
“It felt wonderful,” she said about this month’s scholarship announcement.
“I've always wanted and was looking for such an opportunity to add to my rugby knowledge, and to work on my skills and gain more experience — and World Rugby gave me the chance to do so.”
Abd Elbaki added: “I want to work more on myself, I want to develop myself in a professional way and I always aspire to add to my rugby knowledge and to learn more.
“And, that's why I applied to this scholarship, so I can provide more and be part of growing the game, not only in my region, but in Asia and across the world as well.”
‘We’re working on it’
Abd Elbaki has already had a significant impact on the women’s game in Syria, and she says that the nation’s recent performance at the Arab Women’s Sevens in Egypt has only helped to raise awareness.
Captained by Abd Elbaki, Syria finished second to the hosts at the tournament in Alexandria.
“Our achievement kind of put rugby in the spotlight, especially women's rugby,” she said.
“So, it's getting better now because more and more women are noticing this game and wanting to play it, and wanting to know more about this game.
“So, it's actually getting better, but there are always challenges.”
Those challenges relate primarily to media coverage and sponsorship, while Abd Elbaki is also keen to recruit more female players. “To show them that rugby is not only for men is a hard thing,” she admitted.
“But, we're trying to overcome these challenges by planning more events, by doing more tournaments, more courses, by having more female coaches and referees as well.
“Because it's hard, but we're working on it.”