Afghanistan girls soccer team given asylum in Portugal

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n this photo provided to The Associated Press, members of the Afghanistan national girls soccer team are seen on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Lisbon, Portugal. Late Sunday night, almost three weeks after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the girls and their families landed in Lisbon after an international coalition came to their rescue. (AP Photo)

(AP) The girls on Afghanistan’s national soccer team were anxious. For weeks, they had been moving around the country, waiting for word that they could leave.

One wants to be a doctor, another a movie producer, others engineers. All dream of growing up to be professional soccer players.

The message finally came early Sunday: A charter flight would carry the girls and their families from Afghanistan — to where they didn’t know. The buses that would take them to the airport were already on their way.

“They left their homes and left everything behind,” Farkhunda Muhtaj, the captain of the Afghanistan women’s national team who from her home in Canada had spent the last few weeks communicating with the girls and working to help arrange their rescue, told The Associated Press. “They can’t fathom that they’re out of Afghanistan.”

Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the girls, ages 14-16, and their families, had been trying to leave, fearing what their lives might become like under the Taliban — not just because women and girls are forbidden to play sports, but because they were advocates for girls and active members of their communities.

Late Sunday, they landed in Lisbon, Portugal.

In interviews with the AP this week, Muhtaj, members of the soccer team, some of their family members, and soccer federation staff, spoke about their final days in Afghanistan, the international effort to rescue them and the promise of their newfound freedom.

The rescue mission, called Operation Soccer Balls, was coordinated with the Taliban through an international coalition of former U.S. military and intelligence officials, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, U.S. allies, and humanitarian groups, said Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a nonprofit that’s secured housing for 50 Afghan families.

“This all had to happen very, very quickly. Our contact on the ground told us that we had a window of about three hours,” said McKinley. “Time was very much of the essence.”

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