May 3 11:57 AM ET

Opening doors, and eyes, in Azerbaijan

KURDAMIR, Azerbaijan -- In Hamida Talibova's hometown of Kurdamir, doors are sometimes locked during the day. The men lock them as they leave, taking the keys so the women don't go out.

In Talibova's town, women don't really use the Olympic swimming facility. Some have to ask permission from their fathers or husbands to go to the market. Teenage girls sometimes leave school to get married, and only the best female students attend high school.

So imagine how revolutionary it was for Talibova, 18, to apply to a program that would take her thousands of miles from Kurdamir to the campus of Wake Forest University. An aspiring economist, Talibova came to the United States for a week on a Benjamin Franklin Fellowship.

It was a program for international students she heard about because of Peace Corps volunteers Todd and Sarah France, a story I learned of during my trip to Azerbaijan with a group organized by the State Department to empower women through sports.

"They changed so many things in my life," Talibova said. "I had different thoughts about the world and they came and changed so many thoughts."

Todd France was a kicker with the Eagles in 2005. By 2008, he was playing Arena Football and he and his wife, Sarah, were looking for one big adventure before they settled down. He had played in Germany back in the days of NFL Europe. They both loved to travel and spent the days he wasn't practicing exploring the small nearby towns.

"We drive two hours here and maybe you're in a different state," Todd said. "There, you drive two hours and you're in a whole different culture with a different language."

That love of travel and exploring different cultures led to a two-year Peace Corps commitment. When the assignment arrived -- Kurdamir, Azerbaijan -- they had a lot to learn about the former Soviet republic. They were among the first volunteers in their specific program, meaning they would build it from the ground up.

Azerbaijan is on the Caspian Sea, bordered to the north by Russia and to the south by Iran. Kurdamir is a small town a few hours inland of the oil-rich capital of Baku. Where Baku's architecture displays a turn-of-the-century grandeur, Kurdamir is provincial and spare. Necessities might not come easily. One local home near the library had improvised by turning the spare hull of a rocket into a water tank.

Sarah France was a soccer player in college. She and Todd had planned to start a soccer league and a bicycle club for the kids in the Kurdamir, but she soon saw how difficult it was to get permission from parents to let their girls play. While Todd arranged programs, the boys took part as Sarah lobbied for girls.

"Todd and I were both college athletes and a big part of our relationship is being active," Sarah said. "It was really frustrating not to be able to do anything."

If Sarah went running or played in a soccer game with Todd, she was usually able to escape conventions for women because she was a foreigner. But there were times when even she had to explain that her husband had given her permission to be out by herself. Todd would explain to people he met, like Azer Orucov during an English lesson, that his wife was able to go where she wanted.

If Sarah had been alone in Kurdamir, she may not have lasted the two years. But she and Todd had each other and they were patient. They started by teaching English at the American corner, a room in the library, and slowly instituted a movie night at their home.

"Todd stopped the movie," said Feridun Ahmedov, a tall 17-year-old, "[He'd say,] 'What did you see? What did you learn?'"

Todd said, "My wife and I were able to do a lot of things at our home that weren't so academic, like talk about cultures and their futures."

Soon, that bicycle club was up and running, as was a softball league, and they hosted leadership camps -- Todd for the boys, Sarah for the girls. Todd wrote to his two former NFL teams, the Eagles and Buccaneers, asking if they could donate any equipment to the sports program. A few weeks later, he got two sets of flag football equipment in a box with no return address.

Sarah will never forget the day she took Talibova swimming. First, the teen's father needed to be convinced -- a doctor who said it would be good for Talibova's health provided the rationale. Next, they had to walk to the facility, twice, before she was authorized to enter.

"These girls had never been fully submerged in water," Todd said. "They weren't allowed to go to the pool in town."

But finally, there she was, the brave girl who dared to swim in the pool. That experience taught Talibova a lot. Before, she said, "I wasn't as courageous."

Todd and Sarah researched scholarship opportunities in the U.S. for the students they worked with and helped the teenagers fill out the paperwork.

"Our lives changed," Rashid Mahmudov said.

By 2012, Todd and Sarah's commitment had concluded. Most of the promising young students they had worked with were still in school. Life appeared much as it had when they arrived. The Frances created a collage of photos for the library, said their goodbyes and moved back to Colorado.

Yet even as they left, the seeds they planted continued to grow. Talibova went to Wake Forest. Another student, Aynura Osmanova, was accepted into a program that would allow her to attend high school in Seattle. Osmanova's father overruled the rest of the family and allowed her to go. Mahmudov and Ahmedov hope to someday study in the U.S., or possibly Baku.

"There really are a lot of talented kids in the regions," said Mee Her, the Peace Corps volunteer who arrived as the Frances left. "They just need some encouragement. Todd and Sarah were really good at that."

For Her, it has been hard to keep up the sports programs the Frances set up. She is an avid cyclist, but found the local community didn't take her seriously when she tried to organize games. As a single woman, she found it harder to gain traction. The American corner, however, is still visited by Ahmedov, Mahmudov, Talibova and her younger sister, Fidan.

"They still ask about Todd, will he come back because they want to play softball again," Azer Orucov said.

Todd and Sarah keep in touch with their former students, and spent Thanksgiving with Osmanova in Seattle. Sarah said despite the hardship she would "absolutely" do it again, as the perspective she gained on the world and personal freedom was invaluable.

"The big ideas I took from it?" Todd asked. "I'm much more proud to be an American, and I was proud before. I've learned to become almost an extreme pro-female activist. The whole gender issue was pretty shocking even though we'd been warned about it beforehand."

Things are changing, even if it's more pronounced in a big city like Baku, where a commitment to international competition means an effort to improve recreational opportunities for girls. It may not have reached Kurdamir yet, but every girl whose family allows her to take a scholarship changes minds among her neighbors.

"It's definitely satisfying to know there are individuals who will have a different life because of our time over there," Todd said. "But the real difference will be seeing what those individuals do."


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