During the final era of the Taliban, women were banned from participating in sports and in late August Khalida Popal, the former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, urged players to delete their social media profiles and burn their kits to protect themselves.
“They were like a nightmare for my generation. They took over our entire country in one night. And after that night we could see the Taliban in the streets. They were ruthless. have no mercy on anyone,” 19-year-old defender Narges Mayeli told CNN.
Mayeli is one of two Afghan female footballers now living in the UK who spoke to CNN about their experience.
Once the Taliban took power, the women feared for their lives and the safety of their families.
Attempts to board an evacuation flight to Qatar failed in August after a suicide attack at Kabul airport, so the young women tried to leave Afghanistan overland, through Pakistan, across the Torkham border, in mid-September. They finally got a flight to the UK in November after two precarious months.
“I feel sad and worried, and I want to be able to return to my home. We’ve never dreamed of leaving our country, but it’s difficult and scary to know that as women, we are. I lost the light, the freedom that we had. Afghanistan,” Sabreyah Nowrozi, the 24-year-old captain of the women’s team, told CNN.
In August, the UK government announced a resettlement plan for Afghan nationals facing “threats of repression from the Taliban.”
The scheme, which prioritizes women, girls, religious and other minorities, will see the UK take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years and grant indefinite rights to remain on the land. country or pursue citizenship.
But the women’s soccer team is not guaranteed, Copenhagen-based Popal, who led the effort to evacuate the women and girls, who were only on six-month temporary visas, told CNN.
“These girls don’t have refugee status,” said Popal, who lives in Denmark after she was forced to flee her homeland in 2011 in fear for her life for her role in forming the Afghanistan women’s national team, said. “They’re in limbo not knowing what’s going to happen to them in six-month time,” she said.
Restrictive policies and uncertainty
Last Wednesday, 27 people – including a pregnant woman – drowned in frigid waters off the coast of France after an inflatable boat carrying migrants to Britain capsized in the strait. Manche.
Thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, terrorism and poverty in the world’s poorest or war-torn countries are at risk of passing through danger, often in unsuitable dinghys. for travel and by smugglers, asylum seekers or economic opportunities in the UK.
Ministers on both sides of the Channel on Thursday blamed their counterparts for Wednesday’s tragedy, one of the biggest losses of life in the English Channel in recent years. It is unclear if Afghans were among the dead, but the route is one that other Afghans have used in the past.
The Afghan women’s players say they feel safer and more certain once they have arrived in the UK. “Now that we can have a good night’s sleep, we’re less worried,” Mayeli said.
But with no guarantee of refugee status, young women say they feel unsafe.
“Of course, you can’t focus on your studies, you can’t focus on integration, knowing that maybe tomorrow you’ll be kicked out of the country,” Popal said.
Nowrozi told CNN: “I’m worried that in six months the UK might say, let’s go back to Afghanistan.”
“These girls, these families, the entire group have been through so much. Their lives are in so much danger. They’ve lost so much,” Popal told CNN.
“They didn’t want to leave Afghanistan, but they had to. They were forced. They lost so much along the way. They were scared for their lives,” Popal said.
“It’s not just fear when they lose their lives by the Taliban, but also from the surrounding areas, from the society’s resistance to women’s participation, especially through football,” she said. And it’s not just girls who are in danger, according to Popal: “Brothers and some fathers are threatened and beaten.
“And there, some of them, they lost their homes. They burned because the minute the Taliban took over the country, those ideologies were supported by [the] Taliban. ”
The UK has given the group six months of leave to facilitate their entry into the UK, according to a Home Office official.
They will be processed for an Indefinite Residence Permit (ILR) in the UK before their first 6 months of leave expires, in line with the government’s standard approach during and since the evacuation, according to this official.
If they are granted an ILR, there will be no time limit on their ability to stay in the UK.
The future of women’s sport
The future of women’s sport in Afghanistan remains unclear.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s culture committee, told Australia’s SBS News that Afghan women should not play cricket and other sports where they would be “exposed”.
Wasiq told SBS News: “In cricket, they may face a situation where their face and body are not covered. Islam does not allow seeing women like this.”
Popal told CNN that the Taliban shared inaccurate information about the status of women in order to appear more progressive to the international community.
“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, texts, emails: people are desperate, especially female athletes. They’re really trying to find a way to get out, feel free, access education. sex,” Popal said. .
“We started playing football in a small area in a community where everyone knew we were footballers. We are women who play football, not just as a game, but as we are. play ball to empower other girls in Mayeli told CNN.
“As a woman, as a footballer, I don’t feel safe in Afghanistan.”
A Chance – But Not “Game Over”
The young women say they hope for their “bright future” in the UK.
Mayeli said she thanked everyone who worked to help her reach the UK, including the UK government, Popal, ROKIT (a UK-based charity that helped). football players) and Kim Kardashian.
“I want to have a higher education and help other people when I can. When I can, I want to raise my voice for other girls, because they are still in Afghanistan and they are. is in danger,” she said.
Popal told CNN that the girls need to be provided with refugee status, educational support, mental health and financial support.
“The main focus at first was on supporting their mental health, because they were traumatized. They needed intensive care, and they’ve come this long,” she said.
“They’ve done their job. They’ve been through a lot, and they risked their lives to get out of Afghanistan. They’ve shown leadership. They’ve shown bravery. We need the community together. support for the team to successfully achieve their dreams and goals.”
Nowrozi told CNN she wanted to be a child psychologist, when she studied psychology at university in Afghanistan. And the players can’t wait to keep playing.
“To play for Chelsea, that’s my ambition.”
“I love it, because when I play football, I feel free. I feel comfortable. At first it was a hobby, but then it became my favorite,” she said.