It’s now been five days since I arrived in Jalalabad. I’m having a great time training the team here as well as getting to know a new group of ICRC colleagues while adjusting to a culture that’s quite different from any of the cities I’ve visited thus far. The political climate in and around Jalalabad, which is located due east of Kabul, very close to the Pakistan border, is quite a bit more volatile than what I’ve experienced in Kabul and the northern provinces. As a result, the ICRC team here isn’t allowed to leave the organization’s compound except on official business (visiting hospitals and prisons, meetings with local officials, etc.).

I’ve never experienced this level of security before, but my job is a bit unique in that I get to leave the premises to go to the basketball court (located about a quarter mile away on a separate compound run by a local ministry for orphans and disabled people), so I’ve had several colleagues attend practices just as an opportunity to see something different than what they’re used to. One of them, a German named Henning who is in Jalalabad studying Pashto as he prepares to be an ICRC interpreter in heavy conflict regions, said his trip to practice was only the fourth time he’s been outside the compound in three months of living here. The ICRC compound is a very nice place to live and the staff here are all great people, but four times in three months. Wow. (Fortunately the ICRC is very well respected here and has good relationships with both sides of the current conflict, so there’s little risk to anyone as long as the security rules are followed.)

Henning was the subject of another funny experience. He came with two other colleagues, Paul, a Frenchman, and Verbena, an Italian, to practice on Saturday.  After practice finished, Paul and Henning decided to try their hands at shooting baskets from wheelchairs. I don’t know if either have ever played basketball before, but Paul is very athletic and picked up the technique quickly. When Henning tried to replicate what he’d seen me teaching the Afghan players, though, he really struggled. I showed him several adjustments as he missed shot after shot. After I corrected the position of his right hand, which was shooting the ball, he asked if left handed players ever struggle with learning to use their right hand to shoot. I told him, no, if you’re left handed, you shoot with your left hand. He responded, “Oh, really? I didn’t realize that. I’m left handed.” No wonder he was having such a hard time! He was learning to shoot a basketball for the first time while sitting in a wheelchair AND using his weak hand. We got a good laugh out of that one.

The team here is the newest in Afghanistan, having just formed a year ago. As a result of that and the fact that this is the first time I’ve had the chance to coach them, they’re a bit behind the other teams developmentally, similar to where the Kabul team was last year in comparison to Mazar, Maimana and Herat. They’re all very good students though, and they have several good potential players on the roster. They’re also a very cool group of guys whom I’m really enjoying getting to know. We had a nice conversation after practice yesterday over tea and milk where I asked each of them how they’d been injured. Several had polio as children, many had legs amputated after mine accidents during the Russian occupation in the late 80s and early 90s, and several others were paralyzed after being shot during the Mujahideen and Taliban regimes following the overthrow of the Russians.

One player, an 18 year old named Noordeen, was the first player I’ve met in Afghanistan (at least the first I’ve heard about) who was injured in the current conflict. He was shot by the Taliban six years ago when he was just 12 years old. Noordeen might be the brightest player on the team and, despite having a relatively high level of injury – he’s a paraplegic close to or a bit lower than my level – is one of the best all-around players as well. He’s very focused on doing everything I show the team correctly and will, as a result, improve quickly. I have no doubt that he’ll be a great leader for this team in the coming years.

I have two more days teaching the Jalalabad team, and my goal is to get them as close as possible to the knowledge level of the other teams. They likely won’t be competitive in the tournament this May but, if they continue to work, they’ll definitely have a chance to catch up to the other more experienced teams in the next year.
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Teaching Wasim, at 18 one of the team’s most promising players, how to shoot.

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Having fun with the team during a drill while a crowd of kids from the nearby orphanage watch practice from the other side of the fence. The kids are there en masse every day before school.

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Refereeing a scrimmage game at the end of practice.