Members of Afghanistan women’s football team are dreaming of the moment when they can all be reunited again.
A successful evacuation operation conducted by the Australian government resulted in members of the team, coaches and family members being extracted from Kabul in Tuesday.
They are among at least 4,100 people evacuated from Kabul by Australia since the Taliban reclaimed control of the country more than a week ago.
The captain of the Afghanistan women’s football team, Shabnam Mobarez, has been in constant contact with her teammates.
Currently in Denmark and based in the United States, Mobarez says her teammates now hope to start a new life in Australia after being granted humanitarian visas.
“They had the shift from potentially getting killed to feeling free,” she told SBS News.
“It’s a beautiful transition. A lot of them are very excited to live in a space that is safe for them and to continue their dreams that they started with. They have been so brave. It’s crazy what they have been through. I feel as if this is a fight that they have won.”
The former assistant coach of Afghanistan’s women’s football team, Haley Carter, was part of a group that worked tirelessly to help evacuate the players.
In an exclusive interview with SBS News, she says there aren’t words sufficient to express her immense thanks to Australia.
“From our human rights lawyers to the Australian Defence Force personnel on the ground and the ministers who reviewed and approved visas, I am infinitely grateful,” Carter said.
“This operation simply couldn’t have happened without their support.”
The group also included former coach Kelly Lindsay and former captain Khalida Popal.
They worked with former Socceroo turned human rights advocate Craig Foster and human rights lawyer Nikki Dryden to lobby the Australian government to grant the athletes asylum.
Foster told SBS News that “Australia acted immediately and worked around the clock to make it happen”.
Mobarez says the Australian government is a leading example of what to do in a crisis after numerous countries refused to offer refuge to the athletes.
“I’m honestly very grateful to Australia for helping my sisters out,” Mobarez said.
“I really hope other countries look at Australia and follow in their footsteps.”
The journey to safety wasn’t easy with Mobarez revealing that some athletes went three days without eating as they tried to get out of Kabul.
‘Breaks my heart’
But why, like so many others, were these athletes desperate to escape from the Taliban?
“My teammates were telling me that they (the Taliban) were going from door to door, pulling out girls beating them and potentially killing them,” Mobarez said.
“I believe that they have a list of football players they want to get and potentially kill them.”
The Afghanistan women’s football team was formed in 2007 and was due to play qualifying matches for the Asian Cup next month, but Mobarez believes the Taliban will ban women’s football.
“When I was going back to Afghanistan, I would tell the young players that you must dream big, we can do this, one day you could maybe represent Afghanistan in a World Cup,” Mobarez said.
“We’ve been achieving a lot as a team. It feels like in five minutes, all that achievement has been flushed down the toilet.
“A lot of people believe that the Taliban has changed – but I don’t buy that.
“It breaks my heart to think that there’s going to be girls born under the Taliban regime not knowing that there were brave woman football players fighting for women’s rights.”
“All they are going to know is the Taliban regime and that’s very sad.”
It remains unclear how those rescued will be resettled in Australia. But when and if they are, Mobarez hopes the team can be reunited.
“I would love to see that happen,” Mobarez said.
“Once all the female athletes are secure, that’s something that we all need, which is to come together and hug each other.”
“Also, (we need to) reflect on what the team has been through for so long. It would be a beautiful event and it’s something that we should try and do.”
“To be able to speak to each other and talk about our old memories, it would be amazing.”