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Lana Outdat (left) and her sister, Yara, were in the U.S. when a rocket blasted their home in Damascus, Syria, in November 2012. To maintain their visas, they enrolled at the University of District Columbia, where they discovered lacrosse.

Syrian Sisters Find Refuge in Lacrosse

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.


ara Oudat doesn’t need to look far on most game days. There, in the front row, she’ll find her mother, Lama, and her sister, Lana. She’ll hear them, too, screaming louder than anyone else at the University of the District of Columbia women’s lacrosse games.

Lama Oudat is still learning English, but she’s an expert in the phrase, “Go Yara!” and once mastered, “Go Lana!”

“She finds me before I find her,” said Yara Oudat, a 21-year-old defender for the Firebirds. “She also takes pictures of me every single game. It’s embarrassing.”

Lana Oudat, 24, remembers a time when her name was the subject of her mother’s chants. She was a midfielder for UDC before graduating last year. Unlike her sister, she found a way to enjoy the adulation.

“You know how some people, they don’t want their mom to scream so loud?” she said. “I don’t care. I love it. I feel support because she’s always there for you.”

Lama Oudat has been there every step of the way, but now it’s a new world. She’s no longer driving her daughters to basketball practice like she did when they were younger. Now, lacrosse is what strings this family together.

The Oudat family has been a mainstay in the UDC program for three seasons now. Win or lose — the Firebirds are 1-33 since debuting in 2014 — the Oudat family continues to take in the moment.

“Looking back at it, four years ago I would have never thought I’d be around these people doing this,” Yara Oudat said. “It makes me happy.”

It is hard to believe that just a few years — and some 5,800 miles — separate the Oudat family from a home under siege in Damascus, Syria. Now they call Washington, D.C., home. They live in a city far removed from their war-torn homeland, yet close in a geopolitical sense.

Yara, Lana and Lama now find solace in a sport virtually unknown to their friends and family. It’s a new start for the Oudat family, just as it is for UDC coach Melynda Brown.

“Two women can come from really tragic backgrounds,” Brown said. “And you would never know it unless you really got to know them.”

"Imagine being in your house and your building is literally just shaking," Yara Oudat said. "You knew somebody was going to die Friday."


rom what Lana Oudat knew about America, it all seemed straight out of the movies. The technological advances, the beautiful landscape — it was so distant from what she knew in Syria.

The Syrian civil war started with unrest as part of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and morphed into an armed rebellion in 2012. That’s when the sectarian violence hit home for the Oudat family.

The protests began on campus at the University of Damascus, where Lana Oudat was a student. Her friend, Kenan, was beaten and arrested. He shared on Facebook pictures of the bloody scars on his back.

Yara and Lana Oudat weren’t allowed out of the house on Fridays. That’s when protestors gathered after services at local mosques in the town of Mazze, where their father, Bassel Oudat, lived. Sounds of bombs and gunshots filled the once-peaceful streets.

“Imagine being in your house and your building is literally just shaking,” Yara Oudat said. “You knew somebody was going to die on Friday.”

Fridays turned into weekends and weekends into entire weeks. There was no end to the violence between forces in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and those against his regime.

Bassel Oudat, a journalist at the Italian agency Adnkronos, had been critical of the al-Assad regime and the family feared retaliation. With violence increasing in both Mazze and Massou Doumar, where Lama Oudat lived, the family decided the girls and their mother would leave Syria for the U.S., where they could continue their education.

“I wasn’t super sad,” Lana Oudat said. “I thought, ‘Maybe it is going to work out and we’ll go back.’ It wasn’t final.”

One morning in July of 2012, they packed up and left. Lana Oudat said goodbye to a few of her basketball teammates before they left her mother’s apartment in Mazze for a new life.

The three women drove from Syria into Lebanon. They passed through two Syrian army security barriers before arriving in Beirut, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon.

“[Beirut] is literally one hour away, but it looked so much more peaceful than where I was before,” Lana Oudat said.

That night, Yara Oudat stood with Jasmine, her friend that had escaped the violence months before, on her rooftop, gazing at planes taking off at Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport.
“This is it,’” Jasmine said to Yara. “You’re leaving.”

The next morning, Yara, Lana and Lama Oudat boarded a Lufthansa plane in Beirut, flew four hours to Geneva, Switzerland, and then made an eight-hour flight bound for Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. Lana and Yara’s aunt picked them up in her SUV and drove them to her home in Centreville, Va. During the 30-minute ride, they noticed green trees and houses organized in developments.

“I just wanted to see everything,” Yara Oudat said. “I wanted to go to the movie theater and malls and everything.”

America wasn’t that much different than what Lana Oudat had pictured.

“Now I am in the movie,” she said. “I’m one of the movie characters.’”


t wasn’t the 20-0 loss to Dowling that most concerned UDC coach Melynda Brown. Nor was it the 23 turnovers or the 23-1 shot ratio between the two teams. What became apparent as soon her team took the field at Georgetown on March 20, 2014, had nothing to do with the scoreboard. “I realized I forgot to teach them how to cradle,” Brown said. “It was a boom, shock. You missed something. A big something.”

When Brown took the reins of the UDC program in January 2013, with just six months before fall ball to piece together the historically black college’s first women’s lacrosse team, she did not realize she would have to teach something as basic as cradling.

Still, the former UMass player and UConn assistant coach wanted the challenge.

Brown saw firsthand how UConn went from a 1-15 team in 2008 to winning seasons in 2010 and 2011. After she moved to Washington, D.C., with her fiancé, she served as an assistant at the Holton-Arms School — which had a seven-win turnaround from 2011 (4-9) to 2012 (11-4).

“When I got the job, I was living on cloud nine,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be easy.’”

But Brown soon learned the difference between a rebuilding project and starting a team from scratch. Most lacrosse players from the high school recruiting class of 2013 had already found their colleges. She signed just three players — one of whom ultimately was deemed ineligible — with any lacrosse experience. She needed to get creative with the rest of the roster. Brown turned first to the UDC basketball and volleyball programs, and then to the general student population, for answers.

“I never expected that recruiting would look like that,” she said. “But it worked out the way it was supposed to.”

Brown played the role of teacher and coach. She focused on stick work throughout the fall, catching and throwing with both hands. She spent extra time with players after practice.
UDC lost all 10 of its games in 2014 and was outscored 188-21 along the way. Brown was undeterred.

“Lacrosse was never about winning a national championship,” she said. “It was never about the wins and losses. Lacrosse to me is more of the atmosphere that goes with it.”


Lana Oudat (9), with her mother, Lama (far right), and sister, Yara (behind), on the UDC lacrosse team's senior day in April 2015.


assel Oudat called his family from Syria to deliver the news.

Lana and Yara Oudat’s childhood home, a two-bedroom apartment in Mazze, had been destroyed by a rocket attack. Local press suggested the attack targeted their father. The rocket blasted through the girls’ bedroom, where images of their childhood lined the pink walls.

The blast toppled the library, which included a collection of horror stories and comic books Yara read as a young girl. The only items that remained intact were Lana’s athletic medals, which were stored in a box inside the collapsed closet in her bedroom.

The home — equipped with a living room, kitchen and balcony — was no longer livable.

“On one side, I was angry because we lost our house and our stability,” Bassel Oudat said. “On another, I was happy because Lana and Yara were far away. They will not see their memories being destroyed.”

Still, Lana felt the ramifications from across the globe.

“My first action was to make sure [my father] was OK,” Lana Oudat said. “He sent us photos of it, and I felt really sad. I started crying. It’s all my memories in there.”

After the rocket attack, Bassel Oudat decided to flee to Paris. Lana and Yara, who came to America on visas with the hope of returning to Syria, had to find a school quickly with no home to which they could return.

Lana Oudat, who had already completed three years at the University of Damascus, narrowed her search to local schools like Maryland, Catholic, Howard and UDC. Application deadlines had passed for the first three. She decided to study architecture at UDC and work in the athletic department to help pay for school.

Lana Oudat had played basketball throughout her childhood and once was invited to participate in the Syrian national team camp. She spoke with basketball coach Lester Butler Jr. and intended to join the team in 2014. That’s when Brown barged into the office and, after speaking with Butler, offered the student a spot on her new team.

“I didn’t know what lacrosse was,” Lana Oudat said. “I went home and I Googled it.”

Soon she loved lacrosse. She wanted her sister to play.

“I had no idea what she was talking about,” Yara Oudat said. “She’s talking about this game where there are sticks, and it’s like dribbling in basketball. She showed me videos.”

Brown, who loved the younger sister’s 5-foot-11-inch frame, told Yara Oudat she would teach her how to play.

UDC finished 0-12 in 2015, the lone season the Oudats would play together. But it was never about winning games. The Syrian sisters found respite in a most unlikely sport.



t’s not hard to pick Yara Oudat out at a UDC practice on a rainy morning in late April. She towers over her teammates. Maybe that’s why she — the girl who would always ask her father for the newest basketball shoes — played center at Syrian National School when she was younger.

Yara Oudat runs on the wet turf at Woodrow Wilson High, a public school sandwiched between neighborhoods in northwest Washington, D.C. She switches between white and black pinnies, playing offense and defense. Her sister, Lana, watches from the sideline before leaving for work at Marshall Moya Design, where she is a project designer. She hugs Brown goodbye.

“Neither one of them complain,” Brown said. “It’s unreal to me that their mother has raised two successful, independent women. She has kept this family together through so much, and both of them are succeeding in their own ways.”

Yara and Lana Oudat have found their way in America, and they have lacrosse to thank. The sport allowed them to pursue an education and forget, maybe just for 60 minutes, the turmoil from which they escaped four years ago.

“Lacrosse helped me move forward and just love being here,” Lana Oudat said.

They still hope to go back home one day when the violence stops and Damascus returns to what they knew — the city where Lana Oudat would say hello to employees at the supermarket, Assa Hani, under her father’s apartment and where Yara Oudat, a computer science major, learned to love computers at the local arcade.

Not to mention, they want to see their father again.

“I would love to see them play one day,” Bassel Oudat said.

The Oudats want to bring a piece of what they’ve learned back to Syria. That might include lacrosse.

“Is it going to pick up in Syria? I don’t know,” Yara Oudat said. “I hope it would. People would be excited to learn a new sport."

“I’m going to bring sticks with me and teach them,” Lana Oudat said. “I need to play there. They need to learn."

Lana and Yara Oudat say lacrosse gave them peace of mind. If it can do the same for others in Syria, it might be worth trying.