When Hanan Warsame first started the Toronto Girls Soccer Association (TGSA) six months ago, her young charges could hardly do a lap of the Kipling Collegiate gym without collapsing in heaps – but what a difference half a year makes.
These days, the girls on Warsame’s fledgling year-round soccer team – the vast majority of whom hail from north Etobicoke’s Somali Muslim community – can’t seem to get enough exercise.
“I’ve learned how to do kick-ups, how to pass, and how to score,” 10-year-old Mariam enthused at a recent TGSA practice, shortly before running off to join her teammates for an intense session of running and dribbling drills. “I’ve also learned how to keep the ball up in the air and do headers. It’s cool.”
Mariam and her teammates weren’t always so enthusiastic about soccer, though – especially the running part.
“It was really challenging in the beginning. It was very shocking for me to see these girls not be able to run more than two minutes without asking for a water break – and it wasn’t even just one or two of them, it was, like, 95 per cent if them,” said Warsame of the 25 girls aged five to 13 who play on the TGSA team for two hours every Tuesday and Saturday evening.
“But now these girls, they can run, because I pushed them and pushed them and pushed them. They hated me for it at first, but now they love it and they want to keep on running.”
Born in Somalia, 25-year-old Warsame was raised by her soccer fanatic father alongside an equally soccer-loving older brother in the Netherlands. So it wasn’t surprising when, by age four, she too had taken up the sport with a vengeance.
“I was always playing soccer, always had a ball playing on the streets outside, to the point I was playing four times a week on two different teams,” the Dixon Road area resident said during a break from a recent TGSA practice at Kipling Collegiate.
After a short hiatus from the sport during her university days, Warsame moved to Toronto two years ago and soon began volunteer coaching a young boys’ soccer team. It was while overseeing those boys that she said she began to take notice of her players’ sisters sitting bored on the sidelines – many of them looking like they wished they could be out there playing, too.
And so, soon after, TGSA was born out of Warsame’s desire to instill in young Somali girls – who she said are too often left sitting on the bench – the same love of sport that she grew up with.
“In our culture, girls are often not the priority, so I thought why should I wait,” said Warsame, noting that she had TGSA registered as a not-for-profit organization last May, and then began seeking out volunteers and sponsorships to help make her dream girls team a reality.
One of the first people Warsame approached to sponsor TGSA was well-known Somali broadcaster Hodan Nalayeh, whose Integration TV program was recently picked up by Feva TV and will now be broadcast across Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and parts of Africa.
Nalayeh was “very supportive” of the idea of empowering her young female soccer players Warsame said and readily agreed to sponsor of TGSA’s uniforms – which Warsame said consists of ‘Integration TV’ emblazoned long-sleeved team jersey and pants, in accordance with parents’ wishes that their daughters be modestly dressed.
“I was blessed that I was able to get my show on the air, so when Hanan came to me (about sponsoring TGSA), I thought it was a great opportunity to pass my blessings on to someone else and help make her dream come true,” said Nalayeh, while watching the girls on the team run through drills wearing their Integration TV jerseys.
“I think the best feeling, for me, is seeing the confidence these girls show running around. They seem happier from the first time they started coming until now – it’s a big difference. It’s almost like their spirit changed, because, you know, with exercise, you get more endorphins,” Nalayeh added.
“I’m hoping that this year we can add more girls, because let’s face it, young Somali girls have a high obesity rate. We need to get them thinking about exercise and valuing activity, and not just sitting at home all day.”
In order to expand TGSA from its current roster of about 25 players, Warsame said she’s hoping to recruit more dedicated volunteers like Nasra Mahamed, a team mother who helps co-ordinate everything, and Abdirasak Mohamed, a former soccer player back in Somalia who is now helping out with some of the coaching duties.
“(The girls) started from zero, from scratch. Some of them didn’t even know how to kick a ball, but they’re making improvements,” Mohamed said of the progress he’s seen in the girls – including his daughter Mariam. “We run a lot, we do stretches, we show them how to drive the ball, and we teach them shooting and controlling the ball...There’s a lot of opportunities with being a soccer player, and we’re hoping, one day, some of these girls could get a scholarship.”
In order to expand TGSA, Warsame said she’s hoping for the support of local businesses and sponsors willing to offer the financial support necessary to help the team secure more player uniforms, more gym time, and an outdoor field for the summer season.
“Our next step is to get more girls involved, but to do that we need more coaches and more sponsors,” she said, noting that the team isn’t exclusive to the Somali community, but is open to girls of all different backgrounds. “We just want to keep motivating these girls to keep going and stay active. The most important thing is for the girls to have fun.”