‘I am free but my mind is not’: Girls from Afghan youth football team fear for relatives left in Afghanistan

·5-min read
‘The Independent’ previously revealed  how the football players escaped from Afghanistan (Afghan Youth Development Team)
‘The Independent’ previously revealed how the football players escaped from Afghanistan (Afghan Youth Development Team)

Girls from the Afghan youth football team are fearing for the safety of the close relatives they were forced to leave behind when recently fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It comes after The Independent revealed the inside story of the football players’ escape from Afghanistan – with the girls giving exclusive interviews in early December revealing how they were beaten and threatened with death for playing football.

Recounting their lengthy and harrowing journey to safety in the UK, the Afghan national youth development team said they endured months of suffering after the Taliban seized control of their homeland, including beatings that left them “screaming”.

Speaking to The Independent in exclusive interviews, the football players, who have been in the UK since mid-November, said they are hopeful about their futures in the UK but are consumed with terror about loved ones who remain trapped in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has launched a grave crackdown on women’s basic rights since seizing power of the Afghan capital Kabul in mid-August as the US and British forces withdrew. The hardline Islamist group has blocked women from the workplace and secondary education, as well as barring women from taking part in all sports.

Sweeta Afghan, a 28-year-old football player, said she is missing her family and is petrified for their safety.

The athlete, who is head of women’s football committee in Balkh Province, added: “I have my sister and brother back in Afghanistan where I am so worried for them. I can’t be happy and feel freedom knowing that my brother and sister are living under the threat of the Taliban.

“The Taliban is chasing my family back in Afghanistan due to my active participation in football. Everyone in our area knew I was a footballer.

Sweeta Afghan, a 28-year-old football player, at Leeds United’s stadium, Elland Road (Afghan Youth Development Team)
Sweeta Afghan, a 28-year-old football player, at Leeds United’s stadium, Elland Road (Afghan Youth Development Team)

“Today, I am free, but my mind and brain are not free. I don’t feel freedom knowing my family are living under the threat of the Taliban.”

Ms Afghan noted her mother and father had been separated from the rest of the family and have gone to Albania where they are living in a refugee camp.

She explained she helped develop women’s football in the north of Afghanistan – adding that she has encouraged many Afghan women to take up sport.

“Due to my activism through sports, I managed to get more than 300 plus to join sports in the region that suppressed women,” she said. “I established my own association by the name of Afghan Fighter Girls. This association was empowering women and girls.”

Asma Hedayaty, a 19-year-old football player, at Elland Road (Afghan Youth Development Team)
Asma Hedayaty, a 19-year-old football player, at Elland Road (Afghan Youth Development Team)

Ms Afghan, who persuaded families to let their daughters take part in sports while in Afghanistan, said she much prefers the UK to her Taliban-seized homeland as she has the freedom to play football and can pursue her “dreams and goals”.

She added: “We can play football and have an education. In Afghanistan, as a woman, we couldn’t achieve our goals and dreams.”

“In 2022, I am hoping to have a good year. A year of achievements, a year that I can learn English as soon as possible to be able to study, work, and develop my football skills and get my coaching licence.

“I am hoping to find a way to get my family to the UK as well.”

The Independent revealed in early September that the youth football team were stranded in Afghanistan, and then later in the month that Pakistan would allow them to enter the country on temporary visas.

I am missing my family members. My mum, my dad, my sisters. I am depressed thinking about them. It is making me cry all the time.

Asma Hedayaty

A letter from the embassy of Pakistan, previously seen by The Independent, said it would grant temporary visas to the girls who were stranded in the neighbouring country.

Asma Hedayaty, a 19-year-old teammate of Ms Afghan, said she is greatly missing her mother, father and sisters who are currently trapped in Afghanistan.

She said: “I am missing my family members. My mum, my dad, my sisters. I am depressed thinking about them. It is making me cry all the time. At night, I have nightmares that the Taliban has found them, I wake up in tears and fear.

“It’s sad to not feel free and happy knowing that half of the family is back home in the hands of the enemy. I am hoping to see my family here. To get them here so I can feel freedom and happiness.”

Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan women’s team captain – who was forced to escape from her homeland in 2011 because helping set up the national women’s football team had put her life in danger – played a key role in helping the young players escape the Taliban.

The football team, who are already playing in the UK, are being helped by the Leeds United chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, and Kashif Siddiqi, a London-born footballer who played for Pakistan’s international team.

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan women were barred from working, girls were blocked from going to school, and women had to be chaperoned by a male relative if they wanted to leave the house.

Ms Hedayaty said while she does not know a great deal about Britain, she likes the country ”so far”, but noted that the weather is a little “depressing”.

“I am hoping 2022 will be a year full of achievements and success, where I learn the language, develop my football skills, and get my families paperwork done so I can bring them here,” she said.

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