By staff of the Center of Sport, Peace, & Society
On this night, the Radisson Hotel located in the vibrant city center of Amman, Jordan was alive with a celebration. Arabic drums and laughter provided the soundtrack and traditional food and dance enriched the dimly lit ballroom. More than 250 guests gathered to celebrate the newly wedded couple and the union of their two families. By all accounts, it was a perfect night with family and friends.
Until it wasn’t.
Shortly before 9 pm, the ballroom went dark.
Ceiling panels fell from the sky. Tables and chairs caught fire. Shards of glass filled the air. Family members were crying, screaming, and frantically searching for loved ones. The force from the blast displaced everything and everyone, including one woman’s handbag – a critical detail that will soon become evident in the story of Rola Al-Amer Allahaweh.
The Radisson Hotel was one of three locations targeted in a series of coordinated suicide bombings that night. Fifty-nine people lost their lives and 115 were severely injured.
When first responders arrived they immediately began searching for survivors, while also collecting clues to help identify victims who weren’t so lucky. Using the contents of one woman’s handbag lying near an unidentifiable body, Rola Al-Amer Allahaweh was pronounced dead on November 9th, 2005, and her family was notified on the scene.
But Rola wasn’t dead.
The twenty-four-year-old was fighting for her life due to the shrapnel lodged in her back, neck, and brain. The trauma to Rola’s body was so severe that by the time she arrived at the hospital, her heart had stopped beating. While doctors worked to save Rola’s life, her family suffered with the news of her death.
Doctors successfully resuscitated Rola, then she slipped into a coma. At 2 am, news reached Rola’s family that she was alive. Her mother didn’t believe the military officer who delivered the message and refused to go to the hospital. She told her family that if it wasn’t really Rola or if the news was false information, she couldn’t stand to “lose my daughter’s life twice in one night.”
Rola was the second child in a tight-knit family of nine. Her father served in the Jordanian Armed Forces and all of his children attended military school, which fostered mental toughness and self-discipline. Drawing on these strengths, Rola’s brother volunteered to go to the hospital to determine if his sister really was alive. Although difficult to recognize, he confirmed her identity and updated his family on her condition and the uncertainties facing them all as a result of the severity of her injuries.
Rola eventually came out of her coma and started the long road to recovery. Due to the shrapnel still lodged in her spine and brain, she self-identifies as a complete quadriplegic, with mobility only in her shoulders.
“I am not going to tell you I was a ‘hero’ from the first day of my injury. I spent many nights crying myself to sleep and slipped into weeks of depression. One night in particular I remember saying to myself, ‘If I keep crying what is the result? I’m still going to be disabled. This is only a physical injury and I cannot let it kill my spirit too.’”
Nearly fifteen years later, Rola’s spirit is alive and well.
“I realized during rehab and my subsequent graduate studies the role sport and physical activity can play in the emotional and psychological well-being of a person. I am thankful for swimming and the great therapists who encouraged me to push my body and mind to become stronger and stronger.”
After graduating with her MBA in Clinical Nursing, Rola accepted a position as Lecturer at Princess Muna College of Nursing at Mu’tah University. Her relentless determination to make Jordan a more inclusive country attracted the attention of the Jordanian Royal family and as a result, His Royal Highness Prince Mir’d bin Ra’ad called upon Rola to help him establish a delegation of soldiers to compete in the Invictus Games. As a result of their collaboration, solider-athletes with disabilities have represented Jordan in the past three Games and Rola dreams of going even further in her pursuit of peace and sport for people with disabilities.
Rola refuses to let the worst terrorist attack in Jordan’s history define her. But she never turns down an opportunity to share her story.
And it was Rola’s story that caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy. In 2018, the cultural affairs office in Amman nominated Rola for the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). The GSMP is a five-week leadership development initiative sponsored by the Sports Diplomacy Division, housed in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Sports Diplomacy Division of the U.S. Department of State was born shortly after America’s own horrific encounter with terrorism on September 11, 2001. Diplomacy efforts in the U.S. desperately needed an upgrade to more effectively address modern-day threats and sport was identified as one of the tools in a portfolio of new soft power strategies. Specifically, sports diplomacy was aimed at engaging marginalized youth in an effort to prevent those living on the margins of society from becoming radicalized. Since then, efforts have expanded to include promoting and protecting the rights of women, girls, and persons with disabilities.
Through a competitive selection process, Rola was chosen as one of only seventeen delegates from more than 50 applicants worldwide. She was matched with mentor Sarah Olson, Military Program Coordinator at Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Sarah’s work with wounded veterans and Rola’s commitment to the Jordanian Royal Family to grow sport opportunities for soldiers with disabilities was a mentor-mentee match made in heaven.
“Rola was up for anything we threw her way,” Sarah remembers. “She was always so eager to learn. Sometimes it was hard for me to accept or make sense of what she has lived through and experienced. She talked about her story and every time it would break my heart. I think what impressed me the most about Rola was her infectious zeal for life and the passion to do better, to make the world better – more peaceful and equitable. She helped me appreciate what I have and to use my voice to do better.”
After the GSMP, Rola returned to Jordan with an even sharper focus on ways to promote peace and create change in her country. She is still working as a Lecturer and training the next generation of nurses, while also giving more time and energy to adaptive sports, community integration, and raising awareness about bullying and negative attitudes towards children with disabilities. That’s not all. Rola was inspired by what she experienced at Ability360 and started training as an athlete herself, with hopes of joining the Jordanian Team in the upcoming Invictus Games. She never thought of becoming an athlete – instead, she always viewed herself as a conduit to help others play sports – but after the GSMP, she returned home with a new mindset.
“The country sees me as a national hero because I survived the worst act of humanity. This gives me a huge platform to talk about peace, inclusion, empathy, accessibility, and equity. I want to shed light on the best parts of humanity and if I can show my country that even I can become an athlete, it will help dispel myths about what people with disabilities can and cannot do. I can provide a lot of hope to kids and parents, soldiers and athletes with disabilities. When people see someone else doing something courageous, they believe they can be brave too.”
Rola teaches all of us about courage – in the way she sees the world, in the way she lives her life, and in the way she leads others with dignity and respect. Rola is writing a new chapter and we can’t wait to turn the page and see what comes next for this champion of peace.
At the very least, we know we’ll see her at the 2021 Invictus Games in the Netherlands. Not only did Rola achieve her dream to represent her country as an athlete, but she will also become Jordan’s first-ever woman to be named Captain of the Invictus Games Team.
The University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society is a proud partner of the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program since 2012.