UNICEF Afghanistan Goodwill Ambassador bowls over hearts and wickets in Kathmandu
Former captain of Afghan National Team says sports and education are vital for development and peace
Kathmandu, 3 April 2013 - UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Afghanistan Raees Ahmadzai impressed budding cricketers in Kathmandu and spoke of the unifying spirit of sports. In Nepal to participate in the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Twenty20 Cup as the coach of Afghanistan’s national cricket team, the former captain took out time to interact with young cricket players at the Kathmandu Cricket Training Centre.
Cricket aficionados, girls and boys alike, crowded around the former captain of the Afghan National Team as he asked them to step up to the pitch in turns, and display different strokes while he bowled to them. After providing batting and bowling tips to the eager youngsters and autographing cricket bats, Raees got the children around him to talk about education and handwashing.
“My first question is always are you in school or not? Because if you’re not in school then you’re not ready to play cricket,” said Raees. “Without education there is no discipline and without discipline there is no sport.”
The children listened in awe as Raees spoke about his childhood and birth in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. While growing up amidst the chaos without electricity and clean drinking water and the absence of a normal childhood, he said he saw many children die from diseases, the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. He said that he knew he always wanted to play cricket because school taught him to be hopeful and gave him discipline.
“ I always knew I was going to play cricket and even when I was a child in the camp, I knew I wanted to play for my country,” says Raees, who only went to Afghanistan in 2001 after the downfall of the Taliban. Cricket was immensely popular amongst the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who continued to play when they returned home. Unlike music and other sports, cricket was the only sport authorised by the Taliban.
Earlier that morning Raees travelled to the UNICEF Nepal Country Office and met with staff members including Hanaa Singer, the Country Representative. Like his audience of young cricketers, he easily bowled over the UNICEF staff members with his charm and commitment to children’s education.
“The reason we have a war in Afghanistan is because of the lack of education,” said Raees and explained about the hardships faced by the youth of his country. Raees points out the anomaly in his country where hardliners often denounce education when in reality Islam promotes learning, mercy and compassion. In spite of the myriad challenges in Afghanistan, Raees continues to advocate for girls’ education and various immunisation campaigns, particularly for polio. Raees and his friends on the national team speak about polio at every opportunity, encouraging every family in Afghanistan to ensure that their children receive the two vital drops of polio vaccine, every time they are offered.
“I feel so hopeful when we meet people like you who present a good image of Islam, and in fact the first word in the Holy Quran begins with the word Iqraa which means Read, underlying the importance of knowledge and education," said Ms. Singer to Raees, who was also accompanied by the current captain of the Afghan team Nabi Eisakhil and all-rounder Samiullah Shinwari.
Hailing from a family of sportspersons with Olympian swimmers, Ms. Singer, who is a former swimming and equestrian champion herself, talked about shared ideals and values and the power of sports to engage youth and enhance their participation. “Sports has the power to unify people across all cultures and create a sense of human solidarity, and sometimes I wish leaders and officials behaved more like professional sportspersons,” said Ms. Singer.
Ms. Singer thanked Raees for the valuable contributions he has made in promoting children’s education and immunisation in Afghanistan. She hoped that Raees could also work with UNICEF Nepal’s current partnership with the Nepalese National Team to promote handwashing with soap and hygiene sanitation.
Like a thorough sportsman, Raees said he was happy to collaborate with his Nepalese rivals to promote children’s rights and health and education. He only had one condition. “First we have to beat them on the cricket field, after that everything is possible,” he quipped with a smile.
(On the 3 April 2013, Afghanistan beat Nepal in the ACC Twenty20 finals.)