Her Escape From Kabul Was Supposed to Be the Hardest Part

The New York Times Sports department is revisiting the subjects of some compelling articles from the last year or so. In August, we reported on a soccer player who fled her home in Afghanistan to begin a new life. Here is an update.

When her new life in Australia becomes too overwhelming, Fati, the goalkeeper for the Afghanistan national women’s soccer team, heads to the beach in the nighttime.

She walks along the shoreline of Port Phillip Bay, where the skyline of Melbourne glows in the distance. She shines a flashlight on the colorful fish darting around the shallow water. And listening to the gentle lapping waves, she takes a deep breath and exhales.

There in the darkness and solitude, it’s Fati’s time to reflect. And to mourn.

“I try hard to relax and be calm, but I always end up thinking about all the things that have happened to me and all the things I’ve lost,” she said. “I see that the water is endless, like my problems are endless.”

Fati waiting for a car ride. Two jobs and a brutal daily schedule gave her despair. Some speaking offers and the chance her story would be turned into a dramatic film gave her hope.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

(The New York Times is not using the last names of Fati and her teammates at their request because they fear retribution from the Taliban.)

About 16 months have gone by since Fati and her teammates on the national team risked their lives to escape Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the country. After The New York Times featured Fati in an article in late summer, she was offered paid speaking engagements, including one opportunity to speak at a law school graduation in California in 2023.

There is also a chance that her story will be turned into a dramatic film after more than a half-dozen people showed interest in buying the TV and film rights.

“Sometimes I feel like so strong and I want to keep sharing my story and motivating other people,” she said. “I’m making a difference, I hope.”

But none of that can magically heal her body and mind after running for her life from the Taliban, and then having no choice but to leave her parents and youngest sister behind.

The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

  • A Year Under the Taliban: ​A single year of extremist rule has turned life upside down for Afghans, especially women. A photographer captured the jarring changes.
  • Reversal of Women’s Rights: ​In a return to its hard-line stances from the 1990s, the Taliban have barred women from attending college, ending the final hopes for girls’ education in Afghanistan.
  • A Team in Exile: ​The Taliban have barred girls and women from playing sports. The Afghan women’s national soccer team is still feeling the effect of the ban, even from the safety of Australia.
  • Inside the Fall of Kabul: ​In the summer of 2021, the Taliban took the Afghan capital with a speed that shocked the world. Our reporter and photographer witnessed it.

Fati and most of her teammates on the national soccer squad were forced to leave Afghanistan without both parents because large groups often couldn’t make it past the Taliban checkpoints and chaotic crowds on the way to the Kabul airport, and to freedom.

Fati, 19, now lives in a suburb of Melbourne with her older brother, a younger brother and a younger sister, and she has become their stand-in parents. Their parents and 5-year-old sister, Kawsar, are back in Kabul, barely making ends meet amid the country’s economic collapse.

From left, Fati’s brothers, Khaliqyar and Ali Reza, and her sister Zahra ate a meal with Fati the way they did in Kabul.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Some of Fati’s teammates’ families have left Afghanistan for relative safety in neighboring countries like Iran or Pakistan while they await Australian visas. But Fati’s family has not had such luck. Her parents and Kawsar do not have passports, complicating a difficult situation.

Their immigration case has stalled in the system, and the potential cost for Fati to secure their exit from Afghanistan through backdoor channels is too much for her to pay. She and her family are Hazara, an ethnic group that is often discriminated against and targeted by the Taliban, and the price for those families to leave the country is in the thousands and can be more than twice the cost for non-Hazara families, she said.

“I try not to be negative, but if you want me to tell the truth, I am losing my hope that my family will get a visa,” she said.

The thought of never seeing her family again, or waiting many years to see them, is unbearable, she said, because time already is going by so quickly. She is crushed that Kawsar is growing up without her.

Through daily video calls, Fati has noticed that her little sister has changed so much since they last saw each other in the melee outside the Kabul airport. Kawsar’s hair is long now, and the English that Fati taught her is slipping away. No longer does Kawsar watch Disney animated films to learn English and improve her own prospects in life, the way Fati did. Kawsar also has stopped going to school because it is just too dangerous. The Taliban have barred girls and women from playing sports and also have barred girls from going to school past the sixth grade.

“She’s not the same Kawsar as I knew,” Fati said, choking up.

Fati does her best to help her family in Kabul by sending them money. And while once she was supporting just her parents and Kawsar there, now she is supporting nine people who live in her family’s house. In recent months, her aunt moved in with her five children.

Already, there is not that much money to go around. Fati must pay the bills for her house in a suburb of Melbourne where she lives with her siblings, two teammates and one teammate’s father.

Fati photographed the lights of Melbourne, Australia, after eating dinner.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Fati also wants to relocate into the city to save herself the hourlong commute to work and soccer training, but the housing in Melbourne is too expensive.

Her bank account balance bottomed out, once again, several months ago after her older brother, Khaliqyar, bought a car. She began working two jobs to help pay that bill.

Her first job was in the IT department at a financial services company that is a sponsor for the Afghan national team, now that the team plays for the Melbourne Victory professional soccer club in a state league in Australia. From that IT job, Fati would go straight to her second job, an overnight shift at a pizza restaurant, preparing food and washing dishes until 4 a.m.

The schedule was so grueling that Fati often had headaches and could hardly keep her eyes open, and began to oversleep and miss days at her office job. So when Khaliqyar landed a steady job at a painting company, she quit the pizza place.

Now, Fati is able to focus on her soccer training and leadership activities, which include being a spokeswoman for her national team, a squad that is frustrated because it hasn’t been able to play any international matches.

The Afghanistan Football Federation deactivated the women’s national team program when the players left the country, a spokesman there said, and FIFA, the global governing body of the sport, has ignored the team’s request to be reinstated.

“I’m trying not to cry about the team anymore, but it’s hard,” she said. “I just want to turn on my Afghani mode and work hard to be a good goalkeeper and keep dreaming about playing in the World Cup someday.”

Fati says she wants to play soccer for her country again someday.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

In August, the anniversaries of Fati leaving Kabul and arriving in Australia were among her toughest days in recent years.

During that time, she found it too hard to focus on her English class and dropped out of the course, which she said made her even more distraught and depressed. Several weeks later, there was an attack on an education center in Kabul that killed many Hazara students, including one of her teammate Bahara’s relatives.

Fati, Bahara and some of the other players went to the beach that night to find solace, and the women spent the night wiping their tears.

“I look at the water and I know the water is so cold, and I’m afraid that my heart is also getting cold,” Fati said that night.

These days, she is applying for scholarships to a local university so she and her sister Zahra can start classes next semester. It’s time to jump-start life, Fati said.

When she was a teenager, she wanted to be an archaeologist, and Fati still wants to see the pyramids in Egypt and visit China’s Great Wall. She also wants to play soccer for her country again.

“I’m so much afraid of time and I think about dying, so I know I have to use every opportunity,” she said. “What if all of my time goes by and I never see my family? What if I die without reaching my dreams?”

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