A group of eight young girl football (soccer) players from Afghanistan are here in the United States this summer to learn more about the game and to take part in the International Children's Games in Cleveland, Ohio.
The girls range in age from 11 to 16 and all of them are from the Afghan capital of Kabul. Their trip to the United States was arranged through Awista Ayub, founder of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, an organization she started last year to promote leadership among Afghan youth, using athletics as a tool to teach leadership skills. She said she began the program as a result of her love and passion for sports.
"I grew up as an Afghan-American woman in the States and played sports from my childhood to my adulthood, and it played a very integral part of my life, in helping me to become a strong leader, have a higher self-confidence," she said. "And I thought it was important for me to share with other girls in Afghanistan to help them become stronger leaders using sports as that tool."
The young Afghan girls will be competing in the International Children's Games which will be held in Cleveland, Ohio July 29 to August 2. This will be the first time since the games were established in 1968 that Afghanistan will be represented. Before their appearance, the girls have been attending a sports leadership and soccer camp in Connecticut and other practice sessions. One was in suburban Washington, where they trained under a local girls youth coach, Jawed Sanie.
Coach Sanie is from Kabul, the youngest in a family of 12 brothers and sisters, who left Afghanistan in 1980. The family went to Germany and then came to the United States in 1983. He played high school and college soccer and has coached girls youth soccer in the Washington area for 12 years. Coach Sanie says he works with about 200 kids per week and said the young Afghan players are quick learners.
"They've really got the talent," he said. "They tend to pick up things when I show them, and it showed me that there's room for them to learn and they're willing to learn."
As he coached the girls, Sanie spoke to them in Farsi and English.
"My plan was to get them to learn the different parts of their foot in English, and the soccer language," he said. "So I was trying go back and forth and also ask them afterward what they learned, what they heard from me, and how they were pronouncing it. So I was mainly trying to show them and teach them words they need to learn."
And when Coach Sanie learned he would be able to work with the girls on their visit, he arranged to collect football gear to donate to Afghanistan. He said being involved with these young athletes from Kabul, and knowing what is going on in his native country, has touched his heart.
"I had to come in and make sure I don't get emotional and stick with the program," he said. "But, yes, of course, I have three daughters and I grew up in that area and still remember it, and I'm still an Afghan."
Coach Sanie's niece, Roya Zaka, came to practice with the Afghan girls. She is 13. She learned Farsi from her parents, who were born in Afghanistan. She had a good time playing football (soccer) with the visitors as well as socializing with them.
"They're really good," she said. "Some of them are, like, really good. I didn't know that. I thought they'd be, you know, kind of like timid, but they're really good."
The girls were instructed on all facets of the game - throws-ins, free kicks, stretching, and even drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
The oldest of the eight girls from Kabul, Shamilla, spoke limited English, but it was easy to tell she was having a lot of fun.
Organizer Awista Ayub said the Afghan girls who were selected for the team seemed to feel comfortable even though they were away from home for six weeks.
"They can get homesick, but once they're on the soccer field, if you see them they all have a smile on their face," she said. "So no one remembers that they're homesick or tired or that they're sleepy. It's just energy going and they keep wanting to play and stay out longer."
The goal is that after playing in the upcoming International Children's Games in Cleveland, Ohio, these girls will go back to Kabul to promote sports in their communities and to take leadership roles both in sports and outside of sports.