Their field of dreams

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Behishta Naeme doesn't remember her dad. Someone came for him 18 years ago when she was just a few months old.

It was war time in Afghanistan, which is to say, it was like every other day since 1978.

Her mother and her seven siblings fled to Pakistan, leaving behind a nation cursed by a 14-year war against Russia that flowed into a Civil War and, most recently, a U.S. supported unseating of the Taliban.

It has been estimated that 15% of the population of Afghanistan has died in fighting. Many more have fled to other nations and then, finally, like Behishta, to Canada.

DECENT PITCH

You should know that Behishta Naeme and a bunch of friends pieced together a soccer tournament this weekend at the Birchmount Stadium.

Birchmount is a middle-aged public facility, located just off the beach with a pretty decent pitch and chain link fences.

If you could pick it up and return it to the place that links the kids that played on it this weekend, it would stand out not for its nice turf and passable seating, but for its safety.

"Put this stadium in Afghanistan" said Mahboob Gulestani one of the coaches, "and they would have one of the best teams in Asia. Afghan people love sports, but the fields, they are like horse pastures."

There was face-painting for the kids, uniforms all around, mixed teams and the trappings of any other soccer tournaments, but this was the first ever Afghan Youth Soccer Tournament.

"Everybody that is here is Afghan," said 12-year-old Arman Muheb. "We bring family and friends. It's not about winning and losing. It's for fun."

Purposeful fun. If you are an Afghan living in Canada, chances are you found refuge in India or Russia or Pakistan -- countries closer and perhaps more familiar than Canada. Arman was born in Iran and his family also lived in Turkey.

It is easy to forget where you are from, and what you are of.

"Some of them don't know anything about their culture or their language," said Behishta. "It's very important that they do.

"When they come here, especially the guys, they are more out of control," she said.

"It's not just in Afghan culture, there are bad and good people in all cultures. (But) we need those youth. We can't lose even one person because we need to take care of Afghanistan in the future."

Increasingly, a new kind of warfare threatens young people. Urban war.

"There is war in Afghanistan but there's a lot of gang-related issues with Afghans in Canada, as well," said Naguena Alingary, a 14-year-old female player going into Grade 9 at Lester B. Pearson in Scarborough.

"There are lot of Afghan youth not going on the right path in life. If we do things like the Afghan soccer tournament, it will bring everyone together and maybe it will take their mind off everything else."

"They're just teenagers," said Mahboob Gulestani, who coaches a team of Afghan youth outside the tournament.

"You see a lot of people smoking and drinking and getting with gangs. By making a sports team, that will stop people from going to the gangs and they will come to sports. Once they come to sports, they will start respecting people."

Behishta is a member of a loose coalition of 100 or so volunteers that run an Afghan radio station, Tarotaaza. They produced a one-minute commercial for an Afghan television station promoting the tournament, sold ads and hustled the money to rent the field.

It's a Herculean effort, but the stakes are high for a soccer tournament where the teams barely bother to keep score.

"We need these young people to build a country," Behishta said. "We don't want the old politicians. They ruin everything. We want the new minds to go there and fix the country."


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