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An Afghan girls soccer team rebelled to play the game they love. Now they're refugees

Some of Afghanistan's most talented young soccer players, members of what used to be the girls national team, gather for practice in Lisbon, Portugal, in November.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Some of Afghanistan's most talented young soccer players, members of what used to be the girls national team, gather for practice in Lisbon, Portugal, in November.

LISBON, Portugal — The teenage girls in the red jerseys and black hijabs huddle close on the chilly pitch in this soccer-crazy city and chant their team's name.

"We are Ayenda!" they shout out, using the word for future in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. "We are Afghanistan!"

This team includes some of Afghanistan's most talented young players, members of what used to be the Afghanistan Youth Women's Football Team, also known as the national girls soccer team. Like many people outside the United States, they call the game football.

"Football is our life," 15-year-old Aziza Alizada says during a break from practice. "I mean, we can't live without it."

Aziza and her teammates fled Afghanistan last summer, after the Taliban took over the country and banned women and girls from participating in sports. In extensive interviews with NPR, they gave perhaps their most detailed public account of their escape to Portugal and the personal price they paid, including leaving family members behind.

"We were together during the hardest moments of our lives," says 16-year-old Fatema Erfani. "We are much more than a team."

They felt judged their whole lives

Men have played soccer for decades in Afghanistan. It's one of the country's most popular sports. When the Taliban took over the first time, in the 1990s, they banned women from playing. The U.S. toppled that regime in 2001, but conservative Afghan society was slow to accept female athletes, even after a women's national soccer team was formed in 2007.

Sixteen-year-old Sadaf Sharifzada says she and her teammates grew up feeling constantly judged by neighbors, teachers and relatives.

"If you play football, you're bad girls," Sadaf says. "It's like, 'Why should she play football? Why isn't she at home and washing the dishes or the clothes?.' "

Fatema, Sadaf's best friend, shakes her head.

The coach kicks a soccer ball into play as the Afghan girls practice in Lisbon.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The coach kicks a soccer ball into play as the Afghan girls practice in Lisbon.

"We didn't care what people think about us," she says. "I was, like, OK, I'm a bad girl. Just let me play football."

They thought the Taliban would kill them

They were rebels but they say they never felt unsafe. That changed this August. Fatema heard the news as she was getting ready for practice.

"My uncle called and said, 'Fatema, do not get out of the house,' " she recalls. "And I said, 'Why? And he said [the] Taliban is here in Kabul.' And I was just shaking."

She called her teammates. They were stunned. Kabul and the Afghan government had fallen so quickly to the Taliban.

Somaia Yazdani, 15, remembers scrubbing all football references from her social media accounts. Sarah Haya, also 15, ran out of her Islam course after she saw the Taliban outside the school window, carrying "very big guns," she says. Sadaf thought about her mother, who was pulled out of school during the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. Aziza remembers crying.

"I thought, maybe the Taliban will kill us," Aziza says.

The girls set up a WhatsApp group to stay in touch and find a way to protect themselves.

"At first we didn't have any hope," Fatema says. "As football players, like, we thought, 'Who would care about us?'"

The girls laugh and stretch together during a break from soccer practice.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The girls laugh and stretch together during a break from soccer practice.

Then help came from an Afghan Canadian

Thousands of miles away in Canada, Farkhunda Muhtaj had just begun a new job when she got a call from the Afghanistan Football Federation.

"They asked me, 'Can you help evacuate the girls national team?' " she says.

Muhtaj, 24, had recently graduated from York University and was a star athlete in Toronto, where she grew up, the daughter of Afghans who fled political unrest in the 1990s. She also served as captain of the Afghan women's national team.

"I always looked at any Afghan girl and would think, 'that could be me,'" she says. "When the Taliban took over, everyone was devastated. But you know what? You can cry all day or you can immediately take action."

She reached out to humanitarian groups and American politicians. They hammered out evacuation plans as security in Afghanistan deteriorated.

Muhtaj also joined the girls' WhatsApp group. From Canada, she spoke to them via video chat and voice messages. She told them to fill out forms and send in their passport numbers.

"All the girls had to trust me blindly throughout this process," she says.

Fatema and her teammates say the next few weeks were brutal. They dodged the Taliban, suicide bombers and gunfire. They tried — and failed — to reach Kabul's airport several times. They mourned 17-year-old Zaki Anwari, a member of the national men's youth soccer team, who fell to his death while clinging to the outside of a U.S. military plane leaving the airport.

Then Muhtaj told the girls to leave their homes and wait in a safe house in northern Afghanistan. Fatema remembers stuffing her favorite T-shirts into a duffel bag. Each girl could bring three relatives. Fatema's older sister, Mahdiya, had to stay behind.

"On that night my sister knocked on the window of the car and she told me, 'Sister, goodbye,' " Fatema says, her eyes filling with tears. "And I said nothing because, I don't know, it did not feel real. Later, I remembered that moment. Why didn't I hug her?"

Girls help each other up during practice.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Girls help each other up during practice.

Unable to practice, the team pepped themselves up in a circle

The team and their relatives spent more than 20 days crammed together in the safe house. The girls couldn't go outside or kick a ball around. They had no idea what was going to happen.

To let off steam, the team huddled in a circle and sang. Fatema says it felt like they were psyching themselves up for a tough match.

"Our families would say, 'Be quiet, the Taliban will hear you!' " she says. "But we did not stop singing."

On video calls from Canada, Muhtaj sensed the team was losing faith.

"At times they would accuse me of selling their passports and their visas, and said, you know, they were going to report me to the international community for misleading them," she says.

The Afghan girls soccer team practices in Lisbon.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The Afghan girls soccer team practices in Lisbon.

Then, in late September, came a breakthrough. The team was finally able to get on a humanitarian flight out of Afghanistan. As their plane moved on the runway, Fatema began to relax.

"When the plane took off, everyone was shouting and crying and clapping," she says.

There was also sadness. Sadaf says losing Afghanistan really hurt.

"If I could live free and I could have a good future in my country, I never leave that," she says.

Portugal and its soccer union help them settle in

The girls soon learned that their final destination was Portugal. They didn't know much about it, except that it's the home country of one of their heroes, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

When the team arrived in Lisbon, Fatema remembers it was cold — colder than Afghanistan, at least. She says friendly Portuguese people wrapped her and the others in blankets.

"I thought that we were somehow strange for them," she says. "They were looking at us like, 'OK, what happened to you guys? Are you OK?'"

The team practices in Lisbon. Portugal's professional soccer players union is helping the team with resources.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The team practices in Lisbon. Portugal's professional soccer players union is helping the team with resources.

During World War II, Portugal was a transit to North America for thousands of European Jews fleeing Hitler. In 2015, when more than a million asylum-seekers arrived in the European Union, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa offered to take in thousands more than other countries.

Portugal is now taking in Afghans fleeing the Taliban, including students and staff from Afghanistan's only music academy.

Girls laugh as they are divided into teams for a practice scrimmage.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Girls laugh as they are divided into teams for a practice scrimmage.

"We want refugees to have hope here," says Joaquim Evangelista, president of Portugal's pro soccer players' union, which is helping the Afghan girls' team with resources. "We want them to feel like they can start their lives again."

Portugal offers free housing to refugees but cannot afford to give much in financial support. U.S. aid groups are helping Afghan refugees with that.

Other countries have also taken in female soccer players from Afghanistan. The women's national team is now in Australia, and girls from provincial clubs found refuge in the United Kingdom, with help from Kim Kardashian West, who financed their charter flight.

They worry about family still in Afghanistan

The teenagers are now settling into life in a country where it's normal for girls to play soccer. They're learning Portuguese and enjoying pick-up games outside their hostel. They also played their first match — a draw — against a Portuguese team, Vasco da Gama.

"They are spectacular athletes," says 16-year-old Maria Cunha, one of the Vasco da Gama players. "They do not take football for granted."

Muhtaj, the Afghan Canadian who helped evacuate the girls, is now coaching the team.

The girls cool down after practice as dusk falls on the field.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The girls cool down after practice as dusk falls on the field.

And a second evacuation flight from Afghanistan brought some relatives left behind. Fatema reunited with Mahdiya, the older sister she wished she had embraced before leaving Kabul.

The girls know they're lucky to be safe. But, Sadaf says, losing Afghanistan "is first in our mind and sticks in our dreams." They worry about family members still there. They see starving babies and desperate families on the news.

"We cried, really all the girls cried because we love our country," says Sadaf, her voice breaking. "And I think that, 'Oh my god, I'm so sad I cannot help'."

The team is now preparing to live apart for the first time since they fled their homeland. The Portuguese government is sending the girls and their families to towns where subsidized housing is available.

Fatema says she understands why they have to move but is dreading the separation.

"Because we're like a family, like more than a family really," she says. "This whole, hard journey we passed, it was something we couldn't do without each other."

Filipa Soares and Najib Asil contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.