Four months on, Afghanistan’s women’s national team are finding family and freedom on Australia’s pitches

Four months on, Afghanistan’s women’s national team are finding family and freedom on Australia’s pitches

The heat sets in early – as it often does during Western Sydney summers.

The artificial turf of Field 7 at Wanderers Football Park absorbs the searing December sun, radiating it back out so intensely you can feel it from the grandstand.

Eskies of ice have been wheeled over to the far side of the pitch where two teams, Brisbane Panthers and Sydney United, are trying to find some shade – any shade – in the shadows of the benches and banners.

The players are baking, dressed in long sleeves and tights beneath borrowed kits. They squeeze streams of cool, clear water on their faces, lifting their hijabs to soak their salty hair.

Players from Melbourne United gather in a circle during a water break.(Afghan Cup/Women Onside)After a short hydration break, they return to the pitch to play out the rest of the first half. Some have discarded their hijabs and tights altogether. They can do that now, here, if they choose to.

Zara* gazes out across the pitch, smiling as her friends and countrywomen sprint and wrestle each other for the ball.

Behind us, players from two other women’s teams sit in the shade of the main stand, passing around orange slices, dates, apples, and pistachios. Others have colourful, sugary ice blocks dripping down their hands.

It’s the final match day of the Afghan National Cup, a round-robin tournament run by Australia’s Afghan community in collaboration with local football organisations like Western Sydney Wanderers and Women Onside.

It’s also one of the first opportunities that several of Afghanistan’s women’s national team players have had to get back out onto a pitch since they escaped their collapsing country in August, secretly enrolled in the tournament and scattered among existing teams from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide.

Teenaged Zara is one of them. She was there amongst the desperate crowds of people outside Kabul airport as the last flights were leaving. She and her family tried for two days to find an Australian soldier to let them through the gates, to let them through to safety, to a new life.

She recalls a Taliban fighter standing over her and her brother, Abdul*, firing his gun so close to them that Zara lost hearing in her right ear. She remembers local soldiers ripping Abdul away from her and beating him on the dusty road. She can still see the face of her tearful, screaming mother as they were separated in the chaos of the evacuation.

There were chaotic scenes outside Kabul’s airport where Afghanistan’s women’s national team players and their families (not pictured) were trying to escape.(Supplied ADF)And now she’s here, 11,000kms away, sitting in a new grandstand in western Sydney, watching women just like her run around on a football pitch below us, sweaty and joyful and free.

“I’ve been on a long journey,” Zara says, looking out into the bright morning. “Full of memories. Full of different experiences that I never expected. I saw a different side of Afghanistan — a side I didn’t think I would see one day.

“Football changed my life. Right now, why I’m here, is because of the sport I love to play.”

Making the first stepShe first played a proper football match in 2017 when she was still at school. Until then, she didn’t know women could play football: there simply weren’t any she could see, nobody who could open that door to her imagination.

“I thought it was a joke or something,” she says of that time. “I never thought women could have a team or one of us can play any sport. That was totally new.

“It was really hard and challenging for me because of my family, especially my dad. He wasn’t really good with [me playing] sport. Not just my dad; all of my relatives, my uncles, all of them were against me at that time.

“But one of my big supporters was my mum. She still is. I really respect that. I’m here right now because of her, because of my parents’ support. My mum tried really hard for me, to support me and help me go and train. She even said, ‘I will pay for you, it’s okay.’

For many women and girls in Afghanistan, football became a door that opened out onto a whole new world.(Getty Images/Maryam Majd/ATP images)”Before that, I was going to school and going home. School and home. There was nothing; my world was little. I never saw outside that much.

“But since 2017, I was in the world. I got to know a lot of people, environments, so many things. Football is, I think, love. It changed everything. Changing me, changing my future.”

The Afghanistan Football Federation started a tournament between school teams not long afterwards, which Zara jumped at the opportunity to be part of. That allowed her to travel, to train, to be coached, to learn and improve.

Her mum and Abdul helped her: they lied to cynical friends and family about her whereabouts, saying she was at home studying when she was out on a pitch with her teammates, a whole new life stretching out in front of her.

“At that time, I promised myself: ‘you should do something about this. You should have a good plan for your future,'” Zara says.

“Right now, it’s one of my achievements – I’m here in the tournament.

“This is amazing. Like it’s truly meant to be. The situation in Afghanistan is so different: the security, the environments, the society. So many things were different.

“At that time, when I went to my trainings, it was really hard with people saying that you being an athlete was a shame. Here, when you say you’re an athlete, it’s not a shame. It’s a big thing that you’re achieving. People are trying to encourage you, they’re supporting you and cheering for you. It’s totally different.”

The light of hopeSpeaking to Zara, you wouldn’t know that she’s been in Australia for just three months. She started learning English years ago, listening to foreign music and watching Hollywood films with subtitles on, knowing it would come in handy one day. Her mother encouraged her there, too.

“It was beyond the sport,” she says. “I had a future planned for my family. I’ll never forget the day my mum said, ‘I don’t want you to become like me.’

“I was shocked. I said, ‘why? What’s wrong with you? You’re the best mum ever for me. Why wouldn’t I want to be like you?’

Zara pauses, her eyes growing glassy. She buries her face in her jersey and pulls her cap down. Like many of the athletes now in Australia, Zara’s parents are still in Afghanistan. She and her siblings were the only ones with official documentation to escape to Australia.

She remembers sitting in the dark near Kabul airport, alone and paralysed by fear, thinking she’d lost her whole family in the turmoil. But then she saw a light, she says: a bright light that told her to pick herself up, to go on. That she will be the reason they’ll be safe. That she was their hope.

And so she remains. Zara and her siblings have been in Australia for four months now, but her parents will be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, navigating broken bureaucracies, convoluted visa processes and the silence of a world that has moved on.

Hope, like light, illuminates the path forward for many of Afghanistan’s refugees.(Afghan Cup/Women Onside)They FaceTime and call as much as they can, but it’s not the same. She worries for them: the economy has collapsed and food and medicine are scarce. Family is the foundation of Afghan culture, the stone upon which all else is built. A successful relocation is never complete until the family is.

That is why football – and tournaments like this one – matter so much. It can sometimes be a second family for those still waiting to be reunited with theirs.

Abdul sits quietly next to us as we talk. When Zara’s voice shakes, remembering the evacuation or speaking about their parents, he wraps his long arm around her shoulders, wiping away his own shy tears.

I ask him how he feels now, being here, after all that’s happened.

“The first thing that is important is I can understand that I’m a human now,” he says through Zara, who translates.

“But I am here to start a new [life] – with power. Strong power. I’m like a newborn.”

Abdul plays football, too. He wants to be a professional. He’s a striker and coached Zara when they were in Afghanistan, giving her tips and ideas, challenging her to grow. The two of them are helping each other to be their best selves in their own ways.

“Before my sister came to football, I wasn’t watching women playing – because there wasn’t any; I never saw them,” he said. “So it was a new thing for me when my sister started playing. It became a normal thing.

While visible women athletes inspire Afghanistan’s women, it also changes the perceptions of the country’s men.(Getty Images/Maryam Majd/ATP Images)”When she started her journey in soccer, I was searching about her team, about the levels, and what’s the problem because there was so many [people] saying they’re not to have training.

“In my perspective, there was a big difference between what you see and what you hear. I was hearing from the men that women’s sport is not good. I had these perspectives from people. But I was searching by myself on social media about women’s sport, so I got to know more about that and saw they’re doing their best, so there wasn’t any problem at all.”

He says he wants to be like a mountain for his siblings in the absence of their parents; to show them that they are not alone. For Zara, especially, who has been their guiding light.

“I think she can do whatever she wants,” he beams.

Zara smiles up at him. Behind us, the crowd erupts as another goal is scored. The players cheer and leap on one another, high-fiving and hugging.

Now begins the next stage of their journeys: to learn Australia’s culture and character, its habits and humour, its laws and lingo. Many are still separated from their families and are struggling through overwhelmed and under-resourced government channels to bring them here. But now, at least, they can lean on their second family – their football family – as they do so.

A door opensWhile football is what forced this group out of the country of their birth, it has also allowed them to find safety, freedom, and community in a new one.

The more you listen to their stories, the more something revolutionary becomes clear: a nation is not a place so much as it is an idea. It is not something confined by borders or barbed wire, but is alive and breathing in its people, like those at the Afghan Nations Cup, who carry it with them wherever they go.

Players from Melbourne United hug after winning the Afghan Cup final against Sydney United on penalties.(Afghan Cup/Women Onside)For Zara, her attention now turns to passing on her own lessons and dreams to her siblings: to be the bridge between their old and new lives, just as football has been the bridge for hers.

“Football changed my life,” Zara says. “Like me, it changed so many girls’ lives. You can see so many people get out of Afghanistan through football. So it must be a precious thing. It is a chance; football gives them a second chance. It didn’t leave me alone, so I won’t leave football alone.

“My dad changed. I remember my dad said, ‘you’re my champion.’ It’s all because of football. It’s precious.

“Even if they don’t want us to be in Afghanistan to play and try and follow our dreams, we can do it outside of the country. I remember Afghanistan once had a women’s national team [made of players] outside the country: there were girls from all over the world.

I ask her, finally, about hope: for herself, for the women’s national team, for Afghanistan.

“I always have hope,” she says defiantly. “Because I’m alive right now. I’m an Afghan outside of my country, but I will work for my country.

“The benefit will be for both Australia and Afghanistan; every achievement for women will be a big achievement for my country. We’re going to show them that women are not weak. We should be the change.

“It’s hard, I know. The journey is hard. But I will try harder. If not me, my daughter. If not her, then her daughter. It’s going to be continued. We shouldn’t give up. Because I saw the changes in Afghanistan in recent years, so I have hope. I have hope for that.

“You’ve got to be strong. For the future. You have to be strong enough to pass these hard steps. I promised myself at the airport when I was coming that I will never give up. This is the beginning of my journey. I’ll never stop.”

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of the interviewees.

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