Hailai Arghandiwal is the former captain of the Santa Clara Women’s Soccer Team, and current member of the Afghan Women’s National Team.
I was born in Alameda, a nice town in the Bay Area in California. I am a first generation Afghan-American born to former refugee parents. My journey to finding my “why” in life began at a very young age. Although I didn’t realize it then, family, gratitude, and a will to succeed would be the fundamental values that would shape who I am and who I am becoming.
My mom and dad were both born and raised in Afghanistan. They fled around the time of the Russian invasion and sought asylum outside of their homeland. They did not speak the language nor did they have anyone to guide them. They built their life here in America from scratch. And they always spoke highly of their home and community in Afghanistan.
I was blessed with two big families with traditional values and a strong connection to my roots that helped shaped my childhood. I was able to have a connection with a world that I was not physically a part of. And this was pivotal for me.
I was fortunate enough to attend schools growing up that were quite diverse. From an early age, my father and mother pushed my brother and me to be the absolute best we could be, because America, unlike Afghanistan, gave us the platform to do just that: to be the best. They put me on the best teams growing up to ensure that I got to where I wanted to go.
My mom has always jokingly said that I was quite literally born on the soccer field. My father coached soccer and my older brother played, so it only felt right to play the sport that brought my family so much joy. I started playing organized soccer at the young age of five. As I got older, my passion and my talent also grew. I knew that I wanted to play soccer at the highest level, even then.
My parents did an incredible job raising my brother and me: they exposed us to true cultural traditions while allowing us to adopt the positive American traditions. I believe that our culture has shaped who I am today, but I also believe that it is important to adapt.
In the meantime, I also feel responsible for helping young Afghan soccer players succeed. I have been blessed to play for the Afghanistan Women’s National team. We are championing the sport in the country. I have participated in 18 international games so far both for Afghanistan. I believe there are moments where I do see positive change. I see that more and more women are inspired by what we are doing on the national team, even though whenever we participate in public matches, the reactions are still split. There are many who shame us for playing the beautiful game. But we always have people who send their support and believe in what we are doing.
My first shot at the Afghanistan National Team was when I was 14 years old, when I traveled to Bangladesh for the South Asian Football Cup in 2010. I was young, but I can recall that trip as one of the most powerful, eye-opening experiences of my life. The national team was in its infancy, and the women on the team were stronger than I could have ever imagined. To endure what they have endured, and to be able to put a smile on their faces, gave me a sense of motivation. The more I got involved with the national team, the more I realized the type of responsibility and duty that I needed to take on. My purpose turned into something greater than soccer. It turned into being a vehicle and voice for change. Women are pivotal to the success of this world, because without us, there simply wouldn’t be one.
I am now a member of the Goal Five brand. Goal Five is the soccer brand for the female athlete. Goal Five celebrates and advocates for her. We push to give more women and young girls the opportunity to play soccer.
My greatest achievement has been graduating and playing for a top 20 college soccer program at Santa Clara University while being a part of the Afghanistan National team. To be able to represent my country at the highest level is truly an honor.
As an Afghan American Muslim, the current political climate has most recently brought forth questioning of my identity. I believe that in order to know where you are going, you need to know where you come from.
Servant leadership, I believe, is required to foster an inclusive world. True leaders are not driven by power, money, and influence. They are driven by this relentless pursuit for positive impact.