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August 9, 2004

-- Notebook --

A whole new outlook on sports and America

By Katie Jordan

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I went to Simsbury to meet eight girls from Afghanistan, but somehow I wasn't expecting them to be sitting around a table playing the card game "Uno."

All I knew about the girls before I entered the Ethel Walker School building to interview them for a newspaper story was that they had come from Kabul and were attending a soccer and leadership camp sponsored by the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange.

I also knew that only a few of them spoke any English at all.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous about meeting them -- I feel weird enough talking with strangers without needing a translator. I felt like I would be an outsider there, spending a day with a whole group of people and knowing I was the only one who spoke only English.

But from the moment I stepped in the room and was greeted with a smile and a friendly "Salaam!" from each of the girls, I knew I wasn't an outsider.

Not only were they playing a card game I'd played before with my friends at school, but they offered me a place at the table and a chance to join in the fun.

I appreciated the offer, but decided I'd better get started with my interviews.

The interviewing process was a bit more complicated because of the language barrier. But what will always stick in my memory about these girls was what I learned about them just by being around them.

After their card game, I followed the whole group outside, and I sat on the field and watched as they practiced.

I could definitely see a difference between their playing soccer and the sort of thing I'm used to seeing here in the states. They went at it with a kind of enthusiasm and joy that made a real impression on me, especially because I've always hated sports. My experiences in gym class have rarely been pleasant.

I was impressed with what good sportsmanship I witnessed. There was no bickering and finger-pointing while they practiced. Even when one girl was apparently knocked down by another, I heard one of the other girls say of her fallen teammate, "She said, 'I know she didn't do it on purpose.'"

I was also struck by the contrast between them and myself:

They were running and playing all afternoon in sweltering heat without a single complaint and only a couple of breaks. I almost passed out from standing in the hot sun for too long.

I actually flinched once because the coach shouted and pointed, and I felt suddenly like I was in gym class. For them, playing sports was pure fun, and soccer was heaven. They were always smiling and laughing. It was a joy to watch them having such a good time.

Though most of them don't speak English, they all seemed to have learned one phrase perfectly. When the coaches tried to call an end to the practice kicking they were doing late in the afternoon, all the girls begged, "One more, please!"

I've never liked sports, never in my life. But watching these girls play was something I will never forget. They embodied everything good I've heard about sports but have always had a hard time believing:  They were good sports. They were a team. They were in it to have fun. And they played their best even though it was unlikely they'd win their big game.

It was also really cool to see what America had meant to them.

They talked about how good the people here are, and at first I thought it was kind of strange. To me, Americans don't seem especially good.

But I realized, the America they knew was one that had created a sports exchange program to help people like them, and one that had welcomed them openly and treated them kindly since they arrived.

I guess meeting these girls helped me to see things in a new light:  I spent the day feeling like I was witnessing the world at its best.

I saw a lot of human kindness and decency -- the sort that makes a person from one country try to help children from another; the sort that makes one girl work her hardest so that all the girls together can achieve a goal; the sort that makes a bunch of girls invite a stranger to play cards with them, even though she doesn't even speak their language.

At the beginning, I had been nervous about being an outsider. But, seeing the things the way I saw them that day, I felt like there could never be such a thing in this world -- not when there are so many so willing to reach out a hand.

 

 

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