International Security Assistance Force
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 19, 2012 – On a sunny day nearly six months ago, Air Force Col. AnneMarie Fenton witnessed a sight on the International Security Assistance Force helicopter landing zone here that reminded her of home: Afghan girls playing in a soccer tournament.
While the girls were talented and clearly enjoyed the games, Fenton, who serves as the director for the ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan Joint Visitors Bureau, could not help but notice a few differences from the many games she had watched her daughter play back home in Burke, Va.
"Those girls who had cleats were sharing them between players. None of them had shin guards, and the goalies played without gloves. They were patient when they had to stop play to accommodate helicopter landings and takeoffs,"
Fenton said. "Still, they were all enthusiastic about playing and looked like they were having a great time."
After noticing the need for soccer gear, Fenton spoke to Zahra Mahmoodi, a right midfielder for the Afghan national women's soccer team, who was heading up the tournament.
"It's really hard for some people to imagine that there are 16 girls teams playing soccer in Kabul," Mahmoodi said. "Colonel Fenton was really impressed that these girls loved soccer so much that they would play with so little equipment."
Wanting to help the Afghan girls, but knowing she would need help, Fenton contacted one of her most trusted confidants: her daughter Caitlin, an eighth grader who plays fullback for her Springfield-South County Youth Club girls soccer team Xplosion in Springfield, Va.
"I was surprised at the lack of equipment my mother described," Caitlin said. "If you don't have cleats and shin guards, you could really hurt yourself."
Caitlin, 13, led an effort that resulted in donation of about 1,100 items, including soccer balls, apparel, cleats, shin guards and goalie gloves, Fenton said.
"I sent out a letter, and it was passed on to the other soccer teams in our league," Caitlin said. "We collected donations at the beginning and end of our practices and games. The visiting teams also donated gear."
In addition to donations from Xplosion, Freedom, Stampede and Force White girls teams, SYC, Dick’s Sporting Goods and DRG, an Afghan-based company, also made significant contributions, she said.
Once the gear arrived at ISAF Headquarters, Fenton and her team at the Joint Visitors Bureau worked with Mahmoodi to find a way to distribute it to the Afghan soccer teams. Over the next two weeks, more than 50 girls in Kabul had the new gear. Mahmoodi identified the Allahuddin Orphanage team known in Dari as Ayanda-Sazan, or Future Makers, as the first group of girls to receive the donations.
"The first team that came to mind was the orphanage team, because the girls on this team didn't have cleats, they didn't have shin guards, but they were always participating in the tournaments," Mahmoodi said. "It was really encouraging for the girls, because now they know that somebody appreciates that they play soccer in spite of the challenges they may face."
A week later, Mahmoodi brought several girls to the Afghan army gym next to ISAF headquarters, where they played soccer with ISAF women from the Joint Visitors Bureau who later helped to distribute more donated gear.
Their next opportunity to deliver gear occurred at a field in Kabul. People from the Joint Visitors Bureau watched many of the girls who had received the gear play, and one of the girls came up to Fenton to express her appreciation.
"I'm glad to see you here," the young soccer player told Fenton. "It makes me feel strong."
While the equipment was passed out to individual players based on size and need, Mahmoodi said, he is optimistic that the efforts will have an impact on the girls as a whole.
"When girls are playing as a team, they learn to work together to become friends, and even like sisters. This helps them to see that there is no reason for war and violence," Mahmoodi said. "Learning to be as a team for soccer helps them learn to be as a team for the country and for the future."
Fenton said she hopes the Kabul soccer players also see the team that extends across their national borders.
"I want these girls to know that the United States involvement here is not just a military effort," she said. "The kids their age in the States are genuinely interested in them and their well-being, and they want to make contributions to these girls' success."
Caitlin, who will see her mother later this month when she returns home to Virginia, put it more simply: "Soccer helps girls exercise their freedom."