Dec 12, 2009

Drew University soccer star Shamila Kohestani leaves Taliban behind

BY Wayne Coffey
Five times a day, on the third floor of a boxy brick dormitory, a reserve forward on the Drew University women’s soccer team spreads out a special rug, sits down and tries to figure out which direction Mecca is.

For 10 or 15 minutes, Shamila Kohestani, of Kabul, Afghanistan, quiets her mind and says her prayers. Then she hustles back to her new western life, complete with fingernails painted pink, her name taped to the dorm-room door and a laptop that is rarely far from her side.

Shamila Kohestani never used a laptop until last year. She never did a lot of things. Life under the Taliban included periodic beatings and regular degradation, but not much in the way of amenities, and nothing at all in the way of education.

Sitting on her bed, alongside the patch of floor where she lays her prayer rug, Kohestani takes a short break from another five-hour night of studying. She looks toward a display of photos of her parents, six sisters and one brother, all of whom remain in Kabul - in a country where the life expectancy is 44 years, according to a study by the World Health Organization.

“When I first came here, people would ask, ‘What did you do for fun in Afghanistan?’” Kohestani says. She pauses and smiles. It is a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial. ‘I’d say, ‘What do you mean fun? What is fun? I spent all my life in war.’

“I tell American kids, ‘You need to appreciate everything you have, because everywhere there are people who are starving, people who have nothing. Here there is so much.”

Shamila Kohestani isn’t so much a 20-year-old freshman as she is a social groundbreaker in shinguards, a cross-cultural wunderkind, a woman who captained Afghanistan’s first national women’s soccer team and who scarcely spoke English a year ago, and who, as recently as last month, had massive doubts if she could make it as a college student.

“The first days, I was sure I was going back home,” Kohestani says. “I told myself, I can’t do this.’” And then she did it, relying on the same indefatigable will that helped her through Ramadan last month, Kohestani fasting from sunup to sundown, going through grueling soccer practices without a sip of water.

“I’d get thirsty sometimes, and I’d just tell my mind, ‘Shut up,’” she says.

Christa Racine has been the soccer coach at Drew for 14 years, and a fixture in Jersey soccer since her record-setting days at Rutgers, a school she led to three straight ECAC titles, from 1990-92. That Kohestani has only gotten into one game this season takes nothing from what she has accomplished, in her coach’s opinion.

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