In December 2016, Free to Run started a very unique project in Afghanistan. In partnership with the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan and the Conservation Organisation for Afghan Mountain Areas (COAM), we facilitated the construction of the new ice skating rink, the very first one in all of Afghanistan. We flew the international ice skating coach, Britt Das, into the country for a few weeks in February so some of our Afghan participants could experience the joys of ice skating combined with important environmental training sessions.
The project was aimed at young women (ages 10-25) from the region, but participants from other regions were also flown in to take part in a special Winter Sports Week. The program incorporated environmental lessons such as greenhouse planting and compost training. Why skating and the environment? Of course all winter sports are connected to the environment and climate. At the same time, the program was designed to reach a more diverse group of girls who might be interested in sports or the environment, and have them experience both.
Before receiving ice skating instructions, the students attended at least one environmental training session. Using this approach, Free to Run and COAM delivered ice skating and environmental training to over 70 young women, in just one month.
The outdoor ice skating rink was built at a higher altitude so it lasted from January until March. The hope is that next year it will last longer as the local construction team now has more experience. “Learning how to build the ice rink required watching quite a few YouTube videos," said Taylor. They even consulted two professionals who had built an ice rink in the United States. “They spent a half a day discussing it, and then came to me with a proposal to put down iron instead of ice, to save money. I had to tell them that you can't skate on iron!”
“The local girls were more comfortable with skating,” said Taylor Smith, Free to Run's Country Programme Manager in Afghanistan, “maybe because they grew up in a colder region and could ski already, so they were a bit more fearless. The girls from other provinces had not seen much snow or experienced sports, and were more hesitant. One was scared about falling through the ice, not realizing that it was only 10 cm deep.”
Ice skating also helped to break down barriers between the young women who were coming from different provinces. “At first they were stuck with their little groups, like the Northern team, the Central team, etc.,” said Taylor, “but once they were on the ice it took about five minutes for them to form new friendships. Mostly because they were helping one another to not fall over!”
A big hurdle that young women in the Afghanistan program must overcome is the opposition from the community, as well as conservative families who are not always comfortable with their daughters participating in sports. “That's why we focus on women,” explained Taylor. “Although apprehensive at first, the families were relatively open to allowing their daughters to participate in ice skating lessons because we’d already built that relationship and trust with them.”
Over the last couple of years, Afghans have transitioned from using wooden skis to modern skis and as a result, skiing is really taking off in the country. They’re organizing more winter sports challenges and tournaments as well. Given this new love of winter sports, the hope is that skating can become just as popular. “Who knows – there could be some future Olympians in the program!” said Taylor. “There were a couple of little ten year olds who were phenomenal and became mini teachers to the other girls. The younger girls picked up the sport very quickly and were doing spins and all sorts of things.”
"I had a great two weeks and I will miss the girls dearly,” said skating instructor Britt Das. “The beginners were already skating like they had been doing it for weeks. They were helping each other, giving tips and holding hands. Lots of laughter and an occasional fall gave me a feeling of joy and happiness. This scene could have been anywhere."
Said one young lady from the program, “for me, ice skating was amazing because when I started skating, I was wondering, 'How is it possible to stand on a small blade and keep our balance?' It's another reason we can have confidence; if I can stand on ice with a blade, then anything is possible.”
Our thanks to the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan and the Conservation Organisation for Afghan Mountain Areas (COAM) for supporting this ground-breaking project.