Humbled by her teammates' courage
Hailai Arghandiwal is a California girl. She grew up in the sunshine, played soccer year-round on fields that don't turn brown in winter. She's never lacked for a new pair of cleats, a place to play, or a ride to practice or a game when she needed it.
She serves in her high school leadership class as the commissioner of special events, takes Advanced Placement courses and is preparing to go off to college.
But Arghandiwal is also a daughter of Afghanistan. And because of soccer, she now understands at least some of that experience as well. The Afghan girls she has played alongside could scarcely imagine the opportunities she has as an American teenager, growing up in an affluent suburb of San Francisco.
"I know I'm very privileged," Arghadiwal said. "It's something I will never take for granted again."
Arghandiwal, 17, is a senior at Dublin High School, 20 miles east of Oakland. Her soccer experience has mostly been one of club teams, travel, competitive tournaments and the college recruiting process, one that has led to her verbal commitment to attend Santa Clara University next fall.
But she's had another, very different but equally relevant experience in the past four years, as a member of the Afghan women's national team. She has played in two international tournaments with the Afghan team, an opportunity born of her dual citizenship. She was born in the United States, but her parents emigrated from Afghanistan.
Arghandiwal began playing soccer at the age of 4, participating on an Afghan club team in Tracy, Calif., through middle school.
She was a 14-year-old freshman in 2010 when coaches from the Afghan men's team came to Northern California to scout players and took notice of her talent in the midfield.
"They liked the way I played and they had a very young team, so it wasn't an issue that I was so young," Arghandiwal said.
The Afghan federation invited her to play with the national team in a tournament in Bangladesh, the first international tournament ever for a women's program barely comparable to the well-funded, well-supported women's teams around the rest of the world.
The Afghan national women's team was formed in 2007 in the midst of a war zone as part of a push to open sports opportunities to women. The young women named to the soccer program practiced on a secure NATO military base in Kabul -- on a field that doubles as a helicopter landing pad. They held practice on the base for their own safety, but were frequently forced off the fields when boys' or men's teams arrived. At one point, they were offered space in a stadium in Kabul -- on a cement pad in the corner of the stadium.
Some of these girls are risking their lives to play. They don’t have the support that we do here.Hailai Arghandiwal
Even after five years, the women's players have not received broad cultural acceptance. Some have received death threats and have been ostracized in their communities, family members begging their daughters not to play. Nonetheless, it is a step forward. During the reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, they were not allowed to go outside and play at all.
"Some of these girls are risking their lives to play," Arghandiwal said. "They don't have the support that we do here."
Arghandiwal met up with the team in Bangladesh along with four other players from Northern California, her father accompanying her on the trip. She was the youngest player in the tournament.
Arghandiwal went straight from the airport to her first practice. She was handed leggings and a long-sleeve shirt to wear under her uniform in the stifling heat and humidity, conforming to cultural dress standards in Afghanistan, which commonly include head-to-toe coverage for women.
The team practiced on a dirt field, doing their best to navigate the language barrier (the Afghan players spoke Farsi, though some knew some English), preparing to play a game the next day.
The Afghan team, playing its first game of international competition, lost 13-0.
"I didn't know what to expect, but I'm very competitive and that was difficult," Arghandiwal said. "You couldn't even be mad about it. These girls didn't have anything. They got to practice once a month for an hour before the men would kick them off the field. But I had never lost that bad in my life. After that, I just knew I wanted to help my country."
The team met in the hotel after the game and talked. They talked about roles and goals, and their second game was better, a 3-0 loss.
Arghandiwal spent more than a month in Bangladesh with the team. As she walked through bazaars, she saw poverty and need that she hadn't been exposed to before. Children would reach out and grab, looking for food and money.
"My father started giving out dollars, but there were so many of them," Arghandiwal said.
Her father, Atta Arghandiwal, wrote a memoir, "Lost Decency," about his life as a child and young man in Afghanistan. He left in 1980 as a refugee of the war that followed the Soviet invasion.
Arghandiwal's mother, Halima, wanted her to see firsthand the kind of life that young Afghan women lead.
"No one hears their voices," Halima Arghandiwal said. "She was born here, but I wanted her to have the feel of Afghanistan. These girls take such a risk just to play."
The cultural differences were obvious. Hailai said she and her American teammates stuck out with their "bold" personalities.
"They experience a lot of stress," Hailai said of the Afhan girls. "They don't have opportunities for higher education, they can't wear certain things, they have to be reserved."
She returned to the United States with a new sense of appreciation.
"I'm privileged," she said. "I always knew that, but I think a lot about that now. It's been very humbling."
Two years later, Hailai returned to the team to compete in a tournament in Sri Lanka. This time she traveled alone, sharing a large room with her 28 teammates, sleeping in bunks without air conditioning, eating food that was making some of the players ill.
"We were eating uncooked rice with lime," Arghandiwal said. "And none of us were sleeping very well."
At one point, she was disciplined by her coaches for leaving the hotel to go to a market to bring back food for her teammates.
Arghandiwal would not have played in either of these tournaments if they had been in Afghanistan. Her father wouldn't allow her to go.
He was concerned because his book gave his daughter a high profile, as did her success on the soccer field. At one point, she and her teammates chose to remove the long sleeves from under their uniforms, after one of them had fainted on the field because of the heat. Arghandiwal feared for them because of that decision.
"My father is very protective," she said.
"It's not safe," said Halima Arghandiwal, who was 20 when she left her native country.
Arghandiwal, who has stayed with her club team year-round rather than play high school soccer, has committed to Santa Clara on a soccer scholarship. Her club coach, Walter Pratte, said Arghandiwal came back from Sri Lanka a changed player.
"It changed her for the good, I think," Pratte said. "I think it made her realize the things she has here. I think she appreciates her teammates and her coaches, her freedom. People respect her as a soccer player, and she came back telling stories about how different things are there. She came back with a different attitude for sure."
Arghandiwal does not plan to return to the Afghan national team. She will begin her collegiate soccer career with the Broncos next fall. It is now her goal to earn a spot on the U.S. women's national team, something she is permitted to do as a dual citizen because she played for Afghanistan at such a young age.
"I feel like it's a powerful thing for young Afghan women to see somebody like me get that opportunity, to play for the U.S. team," Arghandiwal said. "It's my dream and I feel like it would mean a lot to them."