University of Rochester

Rochester Review
November-December 2009
Vol. 72, No. 2

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Supporting a ‘Home’ Team Returning to her native Afghanistan to help girls learn teamwork and leadership skills, Awista Ayub ’01 discovers the role sports can play in fostering social change. By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
ayub GOAL-SETTER: In her new book, However Tall the Mountain, Ayub tells the story of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, which has received international attention since she founded it in 2003. (Photo: AP Images)

In the days following September 11, 2001, as any American who lived through them recalls, there was a palpable feeling that the world was going to be different from then on.

It’s a feeling that Awista Ayub ’01 recalls vividly.

“Like so many fellow citizens in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the need to do something,” she writes in her new book, However Tall the Mountain.

‘Girls from Our Homeland’

The sky was ablaze with stars, the air humid and cloudless. Pacing the lawn outside my friend Barbara Goodno’s suburban Washington, D.C., home, I asked myself: Are they ready?

Eight months earlier I had come up with the idea to sponsor a group of eight girls from Afghanistan to the United States for a soccer leadership camp. Now, they were here for six weeks, spending two weeks in Washington, D.C., the remaining weeks in Connecticut where I’d organized a soccer camp, and then finally traveling to Cleveland, Ohio, to represent Afghanistan in the International Children’s Games.

After only two weeks in America, with just a handful of formal practices, the girls from Afghanistan would be playing their first-ever public soccer game.

Laila. Freshta. Samira. Miriam.

Deena. Nadia. Ariana. Robina.

I drove the girls to South Run Park in Springfield, Virginia. It had rained earlier in the morning. The fields were still damp, the sky overcast. The girls were quiet. They spread out, surveying the vast green playing fields before them.

The Afghan girls drew curious glances as we meandered around the park. They were wearing their jerseys, sleeves below the elbow, long shorts hanging below the knees, and socks pulled up under the shorts.

A tournament organizer informed me that we would be playing on the main field, just before the start of the men’s championship soccer game.

“There will be a big audience because of that,” he said with a grin. “More excitement for your girls’ match, don’t you think?”

I smiled and agreed.

More pressure too.

Twenty minutes passed. The loudspeaker coughed: “The all-girls soccer team from Afghanistan is about to begin an exhibition match with an Afghan-American girls’ team. This precedes the men’s final on the main field.”

The crowd came to life, a mixture of murmurs and shouts greeting the news.

“From Afghanistan?”

“Did the announcer say girls from Afghanistan?”

Yes, I thought. Girls from our homeland.

Here to play soccer.

—Awista Ayub ’01

The essay is excerpted from However Tall the Mountain: A Dream, Eight Girls, and a Journey Home (Hyperion, 2009). © Awista Ayub. Reprinted with permission.

But for Ayub, that urge to act intensified in the weeks and months following the attacks, as the public light shone—to a degree unprecedented in her lifetime—on her native country, Afghanistan.

Born in 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, Ayub was two years old when her family fled to the United States and settled in Waterbury, Conn.

On September 11, 2001, Ayub was in her final year at the University. A chemistry major, she was spending a fifth year at Rochester as part of the Take Five Scholars Program, pursuing a course program she devised on women in science and preparing for a career as a research chemist.

By the end of the fall semester, the Taliban, the Afghan dictators who had provided a haven for Osama Bin Laden’s training camps, had been driven out of power by an American-led force, ending—at least for the time—a dark period in the recent history of Afghanistan.

“Life-changing events make for life-changing decisions,” Ayub writes. She decided to return to Afghanistan.

“But visiting would not be enough. I didn’t want to be a tourist in my own homeland. I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the country in which I’d been born.”

Her desire to contribute resulted in the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring Afghan girls to the United States to learn to play soccer. Founded by Ayub in 2003, the organization also mentors the girls in leadership skills so that they can return home to teach soccer and form girls’ leagues in their native country.

This fall, Ayub is spending much of her time on the road, facilitating book club discussions, and speaking about the organization—what it is, how and why she founded it, and the lessons it teaches about the surprising capacity of organized sports to better the lives of individuals and communities in poor and war-torn regions of the globe.

A simple initiative, reasonable in scale, it rests on a well thought-out concept of sports and their potential to foster social change.

As Ayub told Muslim Girl magazine, a publication for American Muslim teenage girls, “Social change is really about evaluating your community and being able to take hold of it and take responsibility for it as team members.”

Ayub discovered organized sports relatively late in her youth, and she was a fan before she became a participant. It was the cable sports network ESPN, with its sports news and analysis program Sports Center, as well as televised ice hockey and tennis matches that first drew her attention.

In high school, she joined the tennis team and got hooked. At Rochester, she recruited 25 women to form the University’s first women’s ice hockey team in 1999—largely by posting flyers and setting up interest meetings. The surprising aspect? She didn’t know how to skate.

“They all assumed I was an ice hockey player,” says Ayub, who instead brought passion, organizational skills, and a willingness to play the position no one else wanted: goalie.

iven Ayub’s aims, soccer seemed a natural choice for her dreams of helping Afghan girls through sports. Like any team sport, the game demands interdependence. And at some point in a match, each team member will have to take the lead. Perhaps most important in a country as poor as Afghanistan, soccer requires only a ball.

Realizing that leadership and teamwork were particularly needed among Afghan girls, many of whom were used to fending only for their families and themselves, Ayub says among her greatest satisfactions has been watching the girls, whose ages ranged from 11 to 16, begin to collaborate and form tight bonds. For people who live outside of war zones, she observes, it’s “difficult to understand the overwhelming impact of growing up in a culture of war.” In Afghanistan, she says, “locals don’t know what to expect from day to day.” And war makes violence and conflict integral parts of daily life.

The first eight participants in the Ayub’s organization arrived in the United States in the summer of 2004. In her book, Ayub chronicles her own experience, in addition to that of the girls. She recalls how, on a muggy summer day on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., she arrived to meet the girls, wearing shorts. “Their eyes darted to my bare legs,” she wrote.

She also had to overcome a few language barriers. Ayub’s parents spoke Pashto, the main language in Kandahar, where her family originated. But the girls were from Kabul, where Dari, an entirely different language, was spoken.

Not least challenging was the transition from a carefree American college graduate to “an overnight soccer mom,” responsible for the well-being of a minivan full of girls—girls in a foreign land and culture.

The first program was a success. The girls returned to Kabul and continued to practice as a team. There, they served as sports ambassadors in the way that Ayub had envisioned. In the summer of 2006, Ayub, who was then living in Washington, D.C., traveled to Kabul to work with the 15 soccer teams established for girls in just two years. That same summer, two of the girls were honored by ESPN with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, presented “for contributions that transcend sports.”

That success has brought Ayub’s organization—and Ayub—worldwide attention. She has appeared on National Public Radio, ABC News, ESPN, and CNN, and in magazines from Sports Illustrated to Glamour.

Over the past two years, however, the Taliban has mounted a resurgence, and Ayub decided in 2007 that she could no longer reasonably guarantee the safety of the coaches or the players.

But if there’s one thing that Ayub would like Americans to understand, it’s that the majority of Afghans yearn for, and are critically invested, in seeing things change.

“Afghan people want stability in their lives,” she says. But after three decades of war, recovery takes time. “Sometimes the media make it seem like we’re not making progress, or that Afghans don’t want help. But from my conversations with Afghans, they really want it.” They are, quite literally, she says, “dying for it.”

While her organization may be in limbo, Ayub is undeterred. In May, she completed a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Delaware that she says will complement her on-the-ground skills in forming nonprofit organizations. And she has started to expand her efforts in the Muslim world, creating the However Tall the Mountain Fund to make small grants to local organizations that promote girls’ sports programs. She has partnered with Women Win, a nonprofit based in the Netherlands that supports women’s sports programs in countries in which women have few opportunities.

Jai Nanda, the managing director of Up 2 Us, an organization that promotes youth sports programs as a means to individual and community development, says Ayub “combines ‘real world’ practical experience with an inspiring personal story.” That combination inspired Up 2 Us to select Ayub as a keynote speaker at their national convention in Washington, D.C., in October.

While her guiding principle is that sports can foster change, Ayub says her work is guided by a strategic principle as well: Successful programs are locally based. “Projects need coordination with local governments and people,” she says.

Or in the case of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, a dream, a ball, and eight girls from Kabul.