Meet Ayah Abduldaim, a remarkable 19 year-old from Wales who is encouraging girls from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME) to play football.
It is down to Ayah that girls – aged 14-16 - regularly turn up for Monday night training in the Grangetown area of Cardiff:
“In my community, girls don’t come to stuff if the parents don’t know who is involved,” explains Ayah. “But they come to my sessions because I’m a familiar face and people trust me. The parents know that the girls will be able to play in their jogger bottoms, a long top and a scarf if they want to.”
Ayah – who is Muslim - explains that while her family have been supportive of her playing sport, there was an uncertainty at first:
“I used to wear shorts but as I grew older, my Dad wanted me to cover up. It’s fine – I compromised and I started wearing leggings underneath. I wear a turban and I always make sure my hair is covered.”
Ayah has just started a Sports Science degree at Cardiff Metropolitan University and she can’t quite believe how far she has come. At 11, she moved to Cardiff from Libya and was thrust into secondary school “hardly speaking any English”. She says sport “rebuilt her life”:
“I love football, I grew up playing football in Libya with my boy cousins. And, after moving here, I found the way I could communicate was through sport. Any club at school, you name it – I was doing it. I was able to relate to my team-mates through sport – I didn’t need language. And sport and football grew with me. I went on to play for Cardiff City FC Ladies and it felt good. When I saw the coaches, I knew what I wanted to do.”
With any free moment she had, Ayah started helping out in PE lessons and then after-school clubs. Her teachers at Fitzalan High School welcomed her with open arms, asking her to speak as a role model to younger girls – even when she was no longer a pupil.
“I was asked by FAW Trust and StreetGames if I would help encourage girls to play recreationally. The girls in my community know me as a mentor and so they all wanted to come.”
Now, every Monday, they gather at Grange Gardens which has become “the heart of the community” ever since the maxi-pitch was funded by the UEFA Grassroots Programme and the Football Association of Wales, in partnership with Cardiff City Council.
The pitch – which opened ahead of the Champions League Final in 2017 - was designed to boost physical activity among residents, local families, children and adults and to inspire more local youngsters to take up the sport:
“The opening of the pitch was a really big thing in the community. We never have stuff like that. There were so many kids there all the time, we had to organise so many tournaments! It’s still really packed. It has made a huge difference.”
But of course it’s not just the facility that is seeing a shift in girls playing football in Grangetown. It is down to Ayah too:
“It’s not a big thing. It’s just what I do. The girls come for fun or sometimes they need a chat if they’re having issues at school, or with their friends. I suppose I’m a big sister really for many of them. I have spoken to some of their parents in the past if I think I can help in a situation – but if I feel it’s something that is disrespectful of their religion or culture, I don’t get involved.”
Big things await Ayah as she starts her degree and she remains fiercely ambitious for women in sport and her community:
“I’d like more girls my age to come and play. I think the girls who are 17, 18, 19 get more self-conscious and think that people are judging them. They would prefer to watch others play. So that’s the next thing we need to tackle.”
Katy Evans of the FAW Trust explains:
“Ayah is an incredible ambassador for our sport within her community and it is an honour having her involved in our football family. The number of girls she has coming along to her sessions is down to her positive attitude and commitment to helping more girls become active through sport.
“We know that teenager girls are the hardest group to engage with so it is reassuring to see 20-25 girls participating weekly because of Ayah. We would love to run similar projects at other locations across Wales to encourage more girls from BAME communities to play.”CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT GRASSROOTS FOOTBALL IN WALES