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Friday, October 4, 2013
Help is on the way, Pakistan

By Fatima Saleem

My head is spinning and my I’m tearing my hair out. But I’ve never felt so amazing in my life.

Today is my last day at ESPN as part of the Global Sports Mentoring Program, and the experience has truly been incredible. I arrived in the United States on Sept. 9 and am going back to Pakistan on Wednesday. I’m packing an extra bag, both physically and mentally.

A little background: I am a 29-year-old TV sports reporter who mainly reports on the events surrounding a game while somebody else -- a man -- reports on the game itself. I came to the U.S. seeking advice on how to set up a mentorship program for other Pakistani women who want to become sports journalists but are afraid to enter a field where few women go.

I’m leaving next week with a much grander plan. On Sunday, I’m presenting my revised action plan to the U.S. Department of State. Did I mention I’m tearing my hair out?

I learned so much here, including the importance of organization and mentorship, but the thing that struck me right away was that practically every woman I met played sports. That’s when it dawned on me: Women need to fall in love with sports in order to cover them.

Saleem
Fatima Saleem says Robin Roberts encouraged her to be stubborn when she returns to Pakistan.

So, I scrapped my original plan and am going back to school instead. Sort of.

The second I get back to Pakistan -- who needs beauty sleep when you’ve got a beautiful project? -- I’m going to ask three schools to give me 45 minutes a week to start a volleyball team for girls. Then I’m going to find perfect coaches for each one. I think that’s going to be key -- I hated my sports teacher because she screamed and yelled at us. I need coaches who are soft-spoken and patient. Once the teams are up and running, they’ll play against one another.

And then I’ll put them up for adoption and say goodbye. My hope is that companies -- maybe ESPN? -- will provide the funding for coaches and equipment. And I’ll move on to three more schools. Slowly but surely, a new generation of girls who are in love with sports will emerge.

I work at my TV job six days a week and 10 or 12 hours a day, so I know I’m going to be pressed for time, but I feel so strongly about getting girls involved in sports that I’m prepared for the inevitable sleepless nights. And action-packed days.

In Pakistan, girls are raised to be moms, not athletes. And I know that sports is the best tool for girls to feel independent and confident. And those are gifts that Pakistani girls need to unwrap now.

So even though my time in the U.S. has been amazing, I can’t wait to get started on my project. I know it will take time and I know I’m going to face a ton of challenges, but my trip to the U.S. has me feeling empowered to do whatever it takes. People heard my voice here. I felt safe here. I felt independent here.

And that’s exactly the way I want girls in Pakistan to feel. Starting now.