Afghan women’s soccer captain helps teen team escape to safety

I was the only point of contact for the girls and their families. Hope was hard to come by, but I couldn’t leave my sisters behind.

  • 3 years ago
  • October 18, 2021
4 min read
Farkhunda Muhtaj, 23, dribbles the ball for the York University Lions in Toronto, Canada. Muhtaj was instrumental in helping evacuate 26 Afghan Junior Women’s Team players and their families to safety in August. Farkhunda Muhtaj, 23, dribbles the ball for the York University Lions in Toronto, Canada. Muhtaj was instrumental in helping evacuate 26 Afghan Junior Women’s Team players and their families to safety in August. | Photo courtesy of the Afghanistan Football Federation
Farkhunda Muhtaj
Interview Subject
Farkhunda Muhtaj, 23, has been the captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team for the past four years and has represented her country on the pitch since 2014. 

A resident of Toronto, Canada since she was 2 years old, Farkhunda has worked extensively in refugee resettlement programs, where she has taught soccer and leadership. 

The star turned down opportunities to play in Europe so she could complete her university education. She is now an elementary school teacher.
Background Information
When the Taliban seized power of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021, they forbid women from playing sports and replaced the country’s Women’s Affairs Ministry with the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Women’s rights had made major advancements in Afghanistan over the past two decades under US occupation. Women held notable positions in politics, courts and business. That was all suddenly curtailed and anyone seen promoting women’s rights was viewed as enemies of the Taliban. 

Farkhunda Muhtaj, a U.S. Senator, a former CIA agent, and several people behind the scenes orchestrated the evacuation of the Afghan junior women’s soccer team to Portugal. The team and their families are now in Lisbon, where they have secured status as refugees. 

TORONTO, Canada—When the Afghan Football Federation first asked me to help evacuate the Junior Women’s Team out of Kabul, the task seemed insurmountable. 

I’d never even met the girls on the team nor their families, and I was living in Canada. But the call came Aug. 16, the day after Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, and there was no time for self-doubt. 

Operation Soccer Balls

First, I called the immigration lawyers and community organizers I knew through my work assisting refugee resettlement in Toronto. Everyone said it was too late and there was nothing we could do. 

Many of the girls, all between the ages of 14-16, didn’t have passports because of how young they were. Finding a country to accept refugees is difficult in the best of times, let alone urgently with no documentation. 

Hope was hard to come by, but I couldn’t leave my sisters behind. 

The Taliban had decreed women couldn’t play soccer under their rule, and the Junior Women’s Team and their families faced potential reprisals. Everything they worked toward was in jeopardy. 

Within a week, Afghans with connections to the military, a U.S. senator, and a former CIA agent agreed to help the 26 teenagers and 54 family members. 

We called it Operation Soccer Balls. 

Danger at every turn

The tactical team in the U.S. coordinated with their contacts in Afghanistan, arranging safe houses and finding flights. 

I was the only point of contact for the girls and their families. I called them every day, sometimes telling them to go to a new address at a moment’s notice because of safety concerns. 

“Where are we going?” What are we doing?” the girls would ask me, each one uncertain about leaving their home under the direction of a relative stranger. 

I couldn’t tell them. Just one slip-up could compromise the integrity of the mission. Our daily calls tested their resolve and the families’ trust in me as they’d rush to a safe house in Kabul, only to return to their homes each day.

The most frightening part was receiving calls from numbers I didn’t recognize. Strangers would call asking “Who’s on the list of evacuees?” or “Where are we meeting tonight?”

I didn’t know if Taliban spies or simply desperate Afghans were calling me, but the danger the girls faced was always clear.

By Aug. 26, 10 days into Operation Soccer Balls, we had secured a flight out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The girls and their family members waited in a safe house for transport to their flight on that fateful day. Thankfully, no transport ever came. 

A suicide bomber detonated outside Afghanistan’s busiest airport that day, killing at least 92 people. The crowds swarming the airport attempting to board planes felt the worst of the attack, perpetrated by ISIS. 

Kabul wasn’t safe anymore. It was time for a new plan. 

Safety at last

With the situation changing every minute, we relocated the whole group, 80 in all, to the city of ​​Mazar-i-Sharif, over 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) northwest of the capital. 

There could be no turning back now. The situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate, and my fear grew for their safety.  

Nearly a month after the Kabul airport bombing, we finally got the call. 

The girls were evacuated on a flight to Portugal, which would

accept the entire team and their families as refugees. One of the world’s soccer superpowers was welcoming our team in their time of need. 

The girls and I held a video call together after they landed. They expressed their disbelief, joy, and aspirations for the future. Some wanted to become doctors, others lawyers—all of them wanted to play soccer for their country. 

The reality they were really out of Afghanistan had not fully set in, and they were still processing the mourning of the home they had fled. 

On Sept. 29, I put the final stage of Operation Soccer Balls into motion. 

I flew to Portugal to surprise the team and meet the girls in person for the first time. The journey to get here has been a hard one, but a new chapter for those girls and their loved ones is beginning.

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