Non-Profit Helps Young Afghan Women Reach Country's Tallest Peak An American NGO called "Ascend" is training Afghan girls to scale their country's highest peak this year. The young Afghan women are a mix of haves and have-nots.

Non-Profit Helps Young Afghan Women Reach Country's Tallest Peak

Non-Profit Helps Young Afghan Women Reach Country's Tallest Peak

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An American NGO called "Ascend" is training Afghan girls to scale their country's highest peak this year. The young women are a mix of haves and have-nots and their circumstances shed light on which of them might succeed.


Today on Morning Edition we heard about a group of young Afghan women who are training to climb Afghanistan's highest mountain. Before they even start to scale the 25,000-foot peak, many obstacles stand in their path - societal taboos, a lack of gear, marriage traditions. A nonprofit group is providing the group with training and equipment in the hope that these young women will break these boundaries. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson picks up their story now and reports there are already indications of who among them will reach the top.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Four of the girls most likely to make it up Mt. Noshaq are from an impoverished Kabul neighborhood where women rarely leave the mud-walled compounds in which they live. The hilltop enclave is called Chehel Sotoun, or Forty Columns. It's widely said to be home to Muslim extremists who fly the black flags of Daesh - a group also known as Islamic State. That presence has my Afghan companions pleading with me to keep my microphone stashed away until we are inside the compound of the four mountain-climbing sisters.


NELSON: The headscarf-clad girls usher us into one of two spartan rooms they, their parents and other siblings call home. We plop down on traditional floor cushions called toshaks while the girls pour us cups of steaming green tea. One sister is Zahra Karimi Nooristani.

ZAHRA KARIMI NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).


NELSON: She is 18 and a high school senior and so painfully shy that fellow team member Nargis Azaryun has to coax her to talk. Despite Nooristani's timidity, her coaches say she is more likely to reach the summit than any of the 11 other potential climbers.


Z. NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: In this video of a recent practice climb outside Kabul, she calls out to friends while repelling daintily like a spider down the rock face.


Z. NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nooristani says "it's not that hard. Everyone should come out and try mountain climbing." Her Afghan male coaches say she is the strongest and fastest on the team, mainly because she shows up for the rigorous daily workouts. On this day, practice is at an indoor recreational club called Skateistan, which has one of two climbing walls in Kabul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

Z. NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nooristani locks her harness and tells the rock wall manager she is ready to go. She grabs for the handholds and hoists herself up, oblivious to the skateboarders thundering in the rink in front of her. Her coach advises her on where to step and grab - not that she needs much guidance. Her three sisters are also here practicing and, like Nooristani, are considered strong climbers. Marina LeGree, who heads the American NGO Ascend that is funding the expedition, is watching the practice. The 36-year-old says she's thrilled the Nooristani sisters are on board.

MARINA LEGREE: We know that they come partially because we feed them and we provide transportation, and that's totally fine with me. That's how a lot of scrappy athletes developed into world-class, you know, athletes. They want it. Any day, give me people who want something and are willing to work for it, and we can provide them everything else that they need.

NELSON: And they need everything, be it tracksuits is for the workouts or crampons and ropes for the actual climb. Last month, LeGree arranged with several Afghan restaurants to send nutritious lunches with fresh vegetables and lean meats to the girls after their workouts. That daily $5 per climber investment has dramatically improved attendance at the sessions.


NELSON: After a recent practice, all 12 girls open Styrofoam containers and wolf down the spinach and roasted chicken inside. For the Nooristani sisters, it's their first meal of the day. They say they often skip breakfast because of their busy schedule, although poverty may be to blame. Their father, who carves grave markers, earns a meager wage.

ROBIA NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Back at the Nooristani home, 17-year-old sister Robia says her favorite training is the weekly practice climbs in the mountains surrounding Kabul. She says she feels a sense of freedom being that high up.

NILOOFAR NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The oldest sister, 21-year-old Niloofar, says she hopes to keep climbing mountains even after she gets married someday. Her year-younger sister, Farnaz, interrupts her.

FARNAZ NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: We won't to get married. We'll be mountain climbers, Farnaz says, to which Niloofar replies, you will get married. You don't have a choice. Arranged marriages are one of the biggest threats to whether the climbers will even make it to the base of the mountain. The team already lost one 17-year-old member after she was betrothed to an Afghan living in California. A second member who was a Taekwondo star and became engaged last month, may also drop out. The four sisters have had marriage offers in recent months that relatives have pressured them to take.

MAHGOL NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Their mother, Mahgol, says the girls are refusing to accept. She says whenever someone is asking for them, they are crying and threatening to jump off the roof. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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