Samira El-Adawy ’13 encourages inclusivity through sports for those with intellectual disabilities

Samira El-Adawy '13 stands in front of Special Olympics sign

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Wooster Magazine.

Samira El-Adawy ’13 is an athlete on a mission to foster inclusion. A former competitive swimmer for the Egyptian Youth National Swimming Team as well as The College of Wooster women’s swim team, she uses sports to promote inclusion in the world, primarily for individuals who are intellectually disabled.  

Impassioned in her current job as youth engagement manager for Special Olympics MENA (Middle East and North Africa), she has seen first-hand the daily challenges individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families face. “These days, we are all caught up in our hectic routines; we each have our own worries. Imagine having these worries and also having to handle and manage your child’s daily basic needs, and their emotions of feeling different or left out and not understanding why,” she said. Every day, she witnesses how the organization’s incredible year-round engagement makes a difference for the Special Olympics athletes and their families.  

Volunteering for the Special Olympics in 2015 for the World Games in Los Angeles first opened her eyes to the impact of athletic engagement for these families. Thanks to her ability to speak five languages including Arabic, the French major and German minor was selected as Egypt’s delegation liaison. The experience “opened the door to opportunities that felt bigger than myself, helped my heart increase in size, and my mind in awareness of society’s basic flaws preventing children with intellectual disabilities from feeling a sense of belonging in our world.” 

She volunteered again with Special Olympics as a youth leader at the Winter Games’ Global Summit. “As an athlete without intellectual disabilities, I was fascinated to see how sports were a tool for inclusion. Everybody loves sports; they bring together people in the best way,” El-Adawy said. 

In 2017, she was partnered with Sondos, a Special Olympics athlete leader. They bonded and became good friends, and in 2017 traveled as a Unified Pair, which includes an athlete with intellectual disabilities and a partner who is an athlete without intellectual disabilities. They represented Egypt at the Global Summit, an inclusion-focused discussion that occurs alongside the Special Olympics World Games. “That was my first time truly experiencing the importance of having unified engagement as a core element of our work.” She saw the movement’s work from all angles and directly engaged with the movement that shaped her “very strong views on inclusion in our school communities,” she said.  

Today, El-Adawy’s responsibilities as youth engagement manager for the MENA region focus on the schools that participate in unified sports where students with and without intellectual disabilities play sports together on the same teams. Her work targets students without intellectual disabilities because “inclusion in this world cannot happen unless those without intellectual disabilities start engaging, understanding, and changing their behaviors to become more inclusive.” 

They train and play together forging a bond of friendship and understanding, and from there “magic happens. It is our goal to ensure that this engagement becomes a driver in all activities in the schools,” she said. “The most beautiful thing about our work in Special Olympics is that we use sports as the catalyst for social inclusion. Seeing the direct impact of what sports can do for our society is the best thing about this job.”  

Samira El-Adawy presents gives a presentation on behalf of Special Olympics Middle East North Africa.

Photos provided by Samira El-Adawy

Working for Special Olympics has provided not only true friendships for El-Adawy, but also a sense of purpose. She was a global citizen from birth. Due to her father working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she lived in Germany, Egypt, Uruguay, Ghana, Sweden, Ethiopia, and France before she attended Wooster in the United States. She always knew she wanted to make a difference in the world. As an international student at Wooster, her Independent Study was the first experience to validate that desire to do good. 

She chose “Life of Ivorian Refugees in Liberia: Obstacles with No Solution?” for her Independent Study “to discover a whole new world, one that I had no previous exposure to.” During the summer of her junior and senior years at Wooster, she interned in Liberia with the Norwegian Refugee Council as a translator in one of the refugee camps. She spoke in French with the refugees to find out what was preventing them from going back to the Ivory Coast. “It was amazing to think that my ability to speak French could help them to communicate their needs and get better support.” 

For El-Adawy, the Wooster experience, including the I.S. and her involvement on the swim team, helped her find the right and meaningful path. “Wooster prepared me for the work I am doing without me realizing it,” she said. 

Through Wooster and Special Olympics, she learned, “It’s often the little things we know how to do that make the biggest difference in some people’s lives.” Her current mantra is that “change does not have to happen with grand gestures and means; it can start with the simplest acts of compassion and desire to find ways to better the day-to-day of a human being.”

Posted in Alumni on March 27, 2023.