Awista Ayub wanted to be a chemist, and right out of college, she was. But after the fall of the Taliban, she realized her calling wasn’t in the lab.
At 23 she started Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, a nonprofit that brought eight Afghan teen girls to the United States for six weeks in 2004 to learn leadership and teamwork—through soccer.
Ayub, whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan when she was two years old, started the first women’s ice-hockey team at the University of Rochester. She knew what a difference a sport can make in a person’s life. During the Taliban’s rule, women weren’t allowed to go out without supervision, which negated any chance at playing sports.
The eight teens returned to Afghanistan to start a soccer league, which now includes 15 teams and 250 players. Afghan Youth Sports Exchange sends coaches from the States to run clinics. “The people of Afghanistan are so passionate about returning to their lives as they were before, and sports is one way they are able to do that,” says Ayub.
Five of the original teens now play for the Afghan national team. The national stadium, which had been an execution site under the Taliban, is now a place where girls can socialize and play.
The first trip that Ayub and four coaches made to Afghanistan is the subject of The Kabul Girls Club, a documentary that will premiere on ESPN in the spring.
Ayub never went back to chemistry. She recently left the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington to work full-time as director of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange. “It’s a 180-degree turn from what I thought I’d be doing,” she says. “But I wake up every day and know I’m on the right path.”