What's to fear from the Tibetan women's soccer team?

On February 24, fifteen young women of the Tibet Women’s Soccer (TWS) team entered the US Embassy in Delhi, India, for the interviews required when applying for a tourist visa to the United States. They were applying for visas in India because they are part of the Tibetan diaspora and live in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile since India offered the Dalai Lama refuge in 1959.

The women were nervous but also very excited because if the visas were granted they would be the VIP guests, all expenses covered, of the Dallas Cup, one of the most important boys soccer tournaments in the world established by the legendary footballer Gordon Jago. The Dallas trip would be the second international tournament for the team. They had competed in Germany in 2015.

Cassie Childers, founder of TWS, was not allowed to accompany her team inside the embassy despite being a US citizen from New Jersey, where the TWS is registered as well as in India, and also having temporary legal guardianship of two minors on the team. She sat on the curb outside the fortress-like building waiting anxiously while a consular official dealt with the team inside the building. Three hours later, they emerged.

The young women told her that the official had asked only two questions - what their positions were on the team and if they had any relatives in the US. He did not even make a pretense of looking at the numerous documents supporting the twenty-page applications each had to submit to be considered for a tourist visa to the US. These included the official invitation from the Dallas Cup tournament, fiduciary documents guaranteeing that all of the team’s costs would be covered, their special passports from India recognizing their status in the country as exiles, a letter from the German tournament officials attesting to the fact that no one had tried to seek refuge in Germany when the team was there in 2015.

Apparently none of that mattered at all. The consular official summarily rejected them all stating, “You have no good reason to travel to the USA.”

Childers and the team were and are devastated. As she wrote that day in an email to friends describing the experience of working for a year to make this happen for the team and their being rejected in the blink of an eye, “If a revolutionary women’s soccer team, the first of their kind for Tibetans, can’t get a tourist visa to attend a very prestigious soccer tournament as VIP, legit guests, then WHO, may I ask, DOES DESERVE A VISA?”

For her, the team is “revolutionary” because they are having a significant, positive, impact on perceptions of the place of women in Tibetan society. The visit to Dallas was to be a triumph not only for the women’s soccer team but for all Tibetans striving for freedom and democracy. She was particularly perplexed because Gordon Jago, considered the father of the Dallas Cup has invited many such teams to support and promote cross-cultural understanding, diversity and peace. Teams of Israeli-Palestinian players, of mixed Protestant-Catholic players from Northern Ireland and a mixed South Africa team have been feted at the Dallas Cup. Why not the Tibet Women’s Soccer team? Or in the new America, who does deserve a tourist visa, as Childer cried out in her email?

Personally, I have a long relationship with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans of Dharamsala, whom I have visited several times over the years. I have interacted with the young people there and have always been impressed with the education they are offered in Dharamsala. They are educated with skills for the future while being grounded in the history and culture of Tibet. They are gentle and caring people persevering despite fifty-eight years of exile.

I thought about all of these things as I read and re-read Cassie Childer’s email. Is the US really to become a country of travel bans and border walls, creating a fortress America based on isolation and fear of “the other”? Even in the midst of the struggle to define this country and its values today, it is hard to understand the threat to the United States of allowing fifteen young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five to come here for ten days of soccer, of new experiences and friendships, and most of all to experience the intense pride of being the first Tibetan team of any sport to come to a tournament in the United States.

If we truly fear them, I truly fear for the future.

Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work banning antipersonnel landmines. She is the Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which unites six women Peace Laureates in the struggle for sustainable peace with justice and equality.

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