April 2017


Over the past week, the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team participated in a training camp in Thailand held by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) for teams from all around Asia. The camp was the first of its kind for developing teams (those from countries, like Afghanistan, with relatively new programs) and athletes (those from established programs looking to take a step toward elite-level competition), and was the first opportunity the Afghan women’s team has had to join the international wheelchair basketball community. It’s been a long time coming – I’ve been trying to find an opportunity for the women to travel abroad since Afghanistan became an IWBF member two years ago – but the chance for them to be a part of such a wonderful, unique event made it well worth the wait.

The trip started with me arriving in Bangkok a day ahead of the team so I could be there to greet them at the airport when they landed early the morning of Sunday April 16th. As I alluded to in my previous post, our meeting – and the trip itself – almost didn’t happen due to extreme last-minute scrambling to secure the players’ visas to enter Thailand. Thanks to heroic efforts by my ICRC colleagues in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (site of the nearest Thai embassy to Kabul), we managed to secure the visas at the last possible minute. We had been told by authorities in the final days that there was no way the visas would be issued in time, in spite of our having initiated the process well in advance, but refused to concede until the final bell sounded. I spent a few sleepless nights in the week leading up to the camp dreading having to deliver the news to the players that, once again, they would have to wait for their first trip abroad due to circumstances completely outside their control. Thankfully – for them and for me – it didn’t come to that.

So I found myself waiting outside customs with Michael Glowacki – director of the upcoming documentary, The League of Afghanistan (who lives full time in Bangkok) – to see the faces of the players appear. Once they finally rounded the corner and came into view, they lit up with excitement to see us. I could feel the weeks of stress melt away in an instant. It was really happening!

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The team gathers upon arrival with me, Michael, and our handmade Dari welcome sign (aforementioned excitement tempered just slightly by their first experience with jet lag)

Adding to the moment was the fact that the team from India – a few of whom I’d had the pleasure of teaching when I conducted a training camp in Chennai in the fall of 2015 – had landed just shortly before the Afghans. After reuniting with both groups and introducing them to each other, we all piled into buses and drove the hour-plus south to Chon Buri, site of the training camp.

The camp kicked off the following morning, with all the participating players – 64 in total from 10 different countries – gathering at the gymnasium. The two coaches running the camp – Irene Sloof from the Netherlands and Ines Lopez from Portugal – had their work cut out for them with such a huge group of players, their instructions being translated into a half-dozen languages, a single court, and no air conditioning during Thailand’s hottest time of the year. Both able-bodied players themselves as well as longtime wheelchair basketball coaches, Irene and Ines handled the situation perfectly. They quickly separated the teams into three groups based on skill and experience in order to make numbers and teaching levels a bit more manageable, and plowed forward, challenging the players (and translators) to keep up. They kept every exercise fun and engaging, but never let the players forget that training with excellent technique and focus was the only way to improve.

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Coach Irene teaches the Afghans how to attack with a numbers mismatch (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

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Coach Ines drills Nadia of Afghanistan (left) and Chanty of Cambodia on one-on-one defensive technique (photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

The Afghans were placed in a group with players from Cambodia (several of whom I was also happily reuniting with after having coached them back in 2013 and 2014) and Nepal, and made fast friends with their group mates, language barrier or no. Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the whole experience was seeing these players from so many different cultural backgrounds learning each other’s names, snapping group photos at every opportunity, and laughing together as they learned. As Don Perriman, Secretary General of the IWBF Asian-Oceania zone and the primary driver of this camp’s organization, said so eloquently, “If we can evaluate a program on the smile factor alone, this camp has been a raging success.”

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Team Afghanistan with members of the teams from Japan, Nepal, and Indonesia

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Nadia gets into a selfie with the Cambodian team (Photo by Sieng Sokchan)

In basketball terms, the Afghan women acquitted themselves very well at the camp. I was given unsolicited compliments from the coaches and camp organizers – as well as coaches of other teams in attendance – on the Afghan players’ skills and grasp of the game. Those meant a lot coming from such knowledgeable sources and, if I could possibly be any prouder of this amazing, pioneering group than I already was, that did the trick. I was also encouraged by the growth I saw in the Cambodian and Indian players I’d coached previously. In the years since I taught them in their wheelchair basketball infancy, they’ve developed a great deal as players and as people – I saw competitive instincts coming out in a few of them that I hadn’t even known existed. I hope to have the chance to go back to both countries in the coming year or two and work with them and their compatriots again.

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The full camp crew (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

One additional note about the Indian team: its youngest player, Poovammal – whom I was meeting for the first time at the camp – took a nasty fall midway through the week, breaking both bones in her forearm and dislocating her wrist. It was a gruesome injury (I saw the x-rays), and she was taken to a nearby hospital to have the arm splinted, wrapped, and put in a sling to immobilize it enough for her to fly home (alone) the following day for surgery. In spite of a devastating end to her first trip overseas, she handled the entire situation with an amazing amount of poise and bravery. She even came to the gym the next morning to say goodbye before going to the airport. I told her she’d be back to 100% in no time and that I looked forward to seeing her new and improved skills the next time we meet.

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Poovammal, small but mighty

After the camp concluded on Friday afternoon, we took the Afghanistan team on an outing to the beach on the Gulf of Thailand. Like the men’s team when it went to Italy in 2014, it was the first time any of the players had seen the sea. I watched as the whole group – even the wheelchair users – crossed the beach as fast as they could move, kicked off their shoes, and waded/wheeled directly into the water. Within a few minutes, the entire team was splashing, swimming, and falling into the gentle waves, fully clothed (in very nice clothing, no less), headscarves and all! It was an amazing scene – one that the Thai beachgoers were utterly fascinated by – and I’ll never forget the cacophony of laughter that went on for well over an hour as the group gloried in their discovery of the sea for the first time.

Due to a transportation-related communication breakdown, we ended up stranded at the beach until late that night, but there are worse places to be stuck for five hours than a Thai beach with a warm evening breeze blowing through the palm trees. Somehow it perfectly completed an epic day and week of new experiences in Chon Buri. One of the players, Mulkara, told me the next morning at breakfast, “Sir, we will remember yesterday forever!”

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Out of the wheelchairs and into the water!

On Saturday, we hired a bus to take the players on a tour of Bangkok before our late-night flight back to Kabul. We spent a couple hours shopping at the giant Weekend Market, an outdoor bazaar with every type of clothing, souvenir, and anything else the players could have wanted to take back to their families. We visited the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. We ate ice cream. And we capped the day off by meeting up with my great college friends, Justin and Courtney Hill, who moved from the US to Bangkok late last year, for a team dinner at a huge restaurant, Eathai, which is set up like an indoor Thai food market. Justin suggested Eathai because it was arranged in a way that the players could see the types of food they were choosing from, which we hoped might lead to them actually eating some of it.

I’d spent the entire week trying to get the Afghans to try the delicious local cuisine, but without much success. They were content to subsist on white rice, bread, eggs, and juice for most meals, concertedly avoiding anything that looked different than what they’d grown up eating at home. I figured this final meal was a chance for them to finally break through their reticence and try Thai food. They’d be trapped amid dozens of booths offering a huge range of Thai dishes, so they had no choice! At the conclusion of the meal, I took an informal group poll and was shocked to find that nearly everyone really enjoyed their meals. Success! After a long flight back to Kabul, we landed and several nearby players turned to me and said, “Mr. Jess, we already miss the food of Thailand!” I’d like to think they were at least half serious.

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One last team photo in front of the Bangkok skyline (From left: team physiotherapist Shukrullah, Farzana, Sumaya, Mulkara, Kamela, Shabona, Freshta, Nilofar, Nadia, team manager Maimoona, Jamila, Palwasha, coach Tahera)

The minute we got through the airport and outside, the players broke into smiles as they smelled the clear spring air and took in the snow-capped mountain scenery surrounding Kabul. It had been an amazing journey, but it was good to be home.

I’m writing this post on April 15th while flying from Denver to Thailand. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting the Afghanistan women’s national wheelchair basketball team for a one-week player development camp put on by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) in Chon Buri. I’ve been trying for the past two years to find an opportunity for the Afghan women to wear the colors of their country abroad for the first time. After months of planning and a visa application process for the players that literally came down to the final minute before coming through (we booked all our flights the day before yesterday and the players finally received their visas less than 24 hours before getting on the plane – yikes), it has finally arrived. I’m so excited that the team is going to have this opportunity and am thrilled that I get to share it with them. A few reasons this will be such a landmark event:

  1. The IWBF Asia/Oceania zone is bringing top coaches from around the world to teach female players that are part of developing national programs from all over Asia. It’s an important step in promoting the development of elite wheelchair basketball programs in new countries across the zone, an important focus for the IWBF and a key point of intersection in their work and the ICRC’s.
  2. 10 of the 12 national team players from Afghanistan received permission from their families to attend the camp. While we’ll miss the two who aren’t able to come, it’s amazing to me to see this level of support from so many of the families, many of whom were nervous about the very idea of their girls playing a sport just a few short years ago. I can’t commend them enough for being so progressive and open-minded in allowing the players to break new ground for Afghanistan wheelchair basketball.
  3. I’m so proud of the players themselves for stepping (way) outside their comfort zones to participate in this camp. It is no small thing to travel abroad for the first time, but they all jumped at the chance. I’m looking forward to seeing their impressions of a place as different from Afghanistan as Thailand.
  4. Among the other countries attending (there will be around 60 players in total) are India and Cambodia, two places close to my heart. I coached twice in each country as they were getting their wheelchair basketball programs started, and have fantastic memories of working with the players. It’s been a year and a half since I last visited India and over three years since I last went to Cambodia, so it’s going to be wonderful to reconnect with all the players I worked with early in their development, especially in such a unique, internationally inclusive environment. Getting to see the players from these different countries build friendships with each other is going to be a very special experience for me.
  5. I’ll also have the chance to see many of the wonderful IWBF officials and coaches that I had the chance to get to know when the Afghanistan men’s team competed in Japan in the fall of 2015. I’m thrilled that the Afghan, Indian, and Cambodian women I’ve coached will have the chance to meet and learn from such a knowledgeable, dedicated group of people.

Following the week in Thailand, I’ll accompany the Afghan women back to Kabul, where I’ll spend two weeks holding national tournaments for the country’s men’s and women’s leagues. The IWBF camp participants will come home with a wealth of new knowledge and skills. I’m excited to see them put those to work in competition as well teach them to their teammates at home.

From Kabul, I’ll travel with Alberto Cairo – my partner in developing wheelchair basketball and adaptive sports in Afghanistan – to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. for a week of presentations, meetings with diplomats and other potential stakeholders, and media interviews. There will be a variety of different events during the whirlwind six day trip, but the broad goal in all of them is to promote U.S. support for the ICRC‘s physical rehabilitation work, with a focus on the power sport has shown in promoting achievement and inclusion for people with physical disabilities.

I’ll head from Washington back across the Atlantic for two weeks in Gaza working with Palestinian players and coaches, a trip I look forward to every year. I’ll finish the final leg of my journey in Switzerland, where I’ll engage with my ICRC Headquarters colleagues in Geneva on plans for further developing the ICRC sports program (more news soon to come on that front).

Whew – that’s a lot of ground to cover in seven weeks. It shall be interesting; we’ll see what happens along the way!