Awista Ayub has brought the universal sport of soccer to Afghan girls -- a landmark idea, considering that just five years ago girls in Afghanistan were not even allowed to attend school.
"Athletics was a very positive experience throughout my entire life that really helped me to become the adult that I am today," Ayub said. "I knew that children in Afghanistan needed the same vehicle to overcome their own obstacles after 30 years of war."
Ayub was born in Kabul but escaped to the United States with her family during the war with the Soviet Union. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fall of the Taliban spurred her to create the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange (http://www.afghansports.org).
She brought eight Afghan girls to the United States in 2004 to learn soccer and represent their country in the International Children's Games.
"Two years ago when I was recruiting for the girls there were absolutely no girls' soccer teams to recruit from, and so we were recruiting girls based on their leadership potential," she said.
"To be able to equip girls with just a ball and to have them go back as ambassadors for athletics is the key to create positive social change," Ayub said.
Honored by the Sports Industry
The program gained strength this past April when Ayub went back to Afghanistan to teach soccer to girls in their own backyards.
"It was a really warm experience going there, a feeling like I was home again," Ayub said.
More than 250 girls came to the clinic and learned how to pass and dribble, and to be leaders.
Ayub said just seeing girls wearing baseball caps was "really reassuring."
This small revolution with soccer balls was recognized this week at ESPN's Espy Awards.
Special recognition was given to two of the girls who participated in the first clinic and are now on the Afghan national team. They were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for contributions that transcend sports.
As Ayub puts it, "I don't think there was a dry eye in the auditorium when the girls received the award."
Still, she is aware it will take more than girl's soccer to make her homeland whole again.
"Afghanistan is at a breaking point where we're on a seesaw that can take the country in either direction," Ayub said. "We have to be able to grab that country and move forward in a way that really helps improve the lives for the children."
She is hoping to return to Afghanistan this fall to work with the now 15 girls' soccer teams in Kabul.