An Afghan girls soccer team rebelled to play the game they love. Now they're refugees The teenagers on the Afghan girls national soccer team lean on each other as they adjust to a new life in Portugal, where they fled after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

An Afghan girls soccer team rebelled to play the game they love. Now they're refugees

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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan this past summer, they banned women from playing sports. The teenagers on Afghanistan's national youth soccer team feared the worst. They eventually found refuge in Portugal, where the game is practically a religion. But their harrowing escape from the Taliban and the homeland they left behind last year still haunt them. Joanna Kakissis has our story from Lisbon.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: On any given day here, you'll see kids playing soccer. It's just part of life in Portugal. So the teenagers in the red jerseys and black hijabs don't really stand out until you hear the coach.

FARKHUNDA MUHTAJ: (Speaking Dari).

KAKISSIS: She is shouting instructions not in Portuguese but in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian.

MUHTAJ: (Speaking Dari).

KAKISSIS: These young athletes - they're all 18 and under - are among Afghanistan's best. And like many around the world, they call soccer football.


SARAH HAYA: Football means peace. Football means that you're a free human.

FATEMA ERFANI: It makes me feel confident. It makes me feel powerful.

SADAF SHARIFZADA: When I get the ball, I think that I can do anything that I want.

KAKISSIS: That Sarah Haya, Fatema Erfani and Sadaf Sharifzada.

HAYA: We fight with the same problems and hardship and difficulties in Afghanistan. And we've become like a family and become close.

KAKISSIS: Sadaf and Fatema, who are both 16, are especially close.


ERFANI: This one is an Afghan.

KAKISSIS: They say boys taunted them every day for playing one of the country's most popular sports.

HAYA: They were telling us that you're a girl - you're playing football?

SHARIFZADA: Oh, my God, you should be on your...

HAYA: You should go wash the dishes.


HAYA: You should stay at home.

KAKISSIS: Do the dishes?

HAYA: Yeah. Yeah.

KAKISSIS: A women's team was formed in 2007, but most Afghans did not approve of female athletes. Sadaf and Fatema say they grew up feeling judged.

SHARIFZADA: If you play football, you are bad girls.

ERFANI: And we did it anyway.

KAKISSIS: One girl was forced to leave her family home so she could play. Fatema fought with her parents.

ERFANI: We didn't care about what people think about us. Like, it was what we think of ourselves, what makes us successful, what makes us happy.

KAKISSIS: But this August, everything changed. Fatema heard the news as she was getting ready for practice.

ERFANI: My uncle called and told me that, OK, Fatema, do not get out of the house. And I say, why?

KAKISSIS: Why'd he say that?

KAKISSIS: And he said that, OK, Taliban is here in Kabul. And I was just shaking.

KAKISSIS: Fatema and her teammates set up a WhatsApp group to stay in touch and find a way to protect themselves.

ERFANI: We didn't have any hope. Like, as football players, like, we thought, like, who would care about us? But suddenly, there is an opportunity, and we are trying.

KAKISSIS: The opportunity was for Farkhunda Muhtaj, the 24-year-old captain of the Afghan women's national team. Farkhunda lived in Canada. She grew up there, the daughter of Afghans who fled political unrest in the 1990s.

MUHTAJ: I always thought about Afghanistan. I grew up in the culture. And, you know, I always looked at any Afghan girl and would think, that could be me. That could have been me.

KAKISSIS: Afghanistan's Football Federation asked Farkhunda if she could help evacuate the girls.

MUHTAJ: And I got in contact with U.S. government officials, humanitarians and organizations that were willing to help. I shared what the mission was, and everyone was fully on board.

KAKISSIS: Farkhunda got on WhatsApp and told the team to fill out forms and send in their passport numbers.

MUHTAJ: All the girls had to trust me blindly throughout this process. And, you know, they went through a very difficult period of time in Afghanistan.

KAKISSIS: The girls could not reach Kabul's airport. They dodged gunfire and the Taliban. Then they fled to a safe house in northern Afghanistan. Only three relatives could join them. Fatema left behind her older sister.

ERFANI: On that night, my sister knocked on the window of the car, and she told me that, (speaking Dari). OK, I'm not going to cry.

KAKISSIS: I'm sorry.

ERFANI: Sister, like, goodbye.

KAKISSIS: That's really hard.

ERFANI: I remember that moment - that, OK, why didn't I hug her or - (crying).

KAKISSIS: Fatema and her teammates spent the next three weeks in the safe house. They could not go outside or kick a ball around.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: So they huddled in a circle and sang to let off steam.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: The girls say the singing felt like they were psyching themselves up for a tough match. But from Canada, Farkhunda sensed the team was losing faith.

MUHTAJ: At times, they would accuse me of selling their passports and their visas and, you know, said they were going to report me to the international community for misleading them. But I looked at the bigger picture. They're in Afghanistan. They're in a dire situation. They're scared. And they're kids.

KAKISSIS: And then came a breakthrough.


KAKISSIS: In late September, the team finally got on a flight out of Afghanistan. As their plane moved on the runway, Fatema began to relax.

ERFANI: When the plane took off, and everyone was shouting and crying and clapping, it was so - what happened?


KAKISSIS: There was also sadness. Sadaf says losing Afghanistan really hurt.

SHARIFZADA: So why we should lose that - really, it was very hard. And if I could live free and if I could have a good future in my country, I'd never leave that.

KAKISSIS: The team learned during the flight that they were going to Portugal. They didn't know much about it except that it's the home country of one of their heroes, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.


KAKISSIS: When the team arrived in Lisbon, Fatema remembers the Portuguese wrapping her and the others in blankets.

ERFANI: I thought that, oh, we are, like, somehow strange for them. Like, they were looking at us like, OK, what happened to you guys? They were like, are you OK? Yeah.


KAKISSIS: The Portuguese government put the team and their families up in temporary housing in Lisbon.


KAKISSIS: And remember Farkhunda, the Afghan Canadian who helped evacuate the girls? She's now their coach.

MUHTAJ: Let's go.

KAKISSIS: Fatema also got good news. She reunited with her sister, who arrived recently on a second evacuation flight.


KAKISSIS: The teenagers now play pickup games outside their hostel. They're learning Portuguese.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese, laughing).

KAKISSIS: Sadaf says she and her teammates all know how lucky they are. They have seen the news about starving babies and desperate families back home.

SHARIFZADA: We all cried. Really, all the girls cried because, you know, that we love the country. And I think that, oh, my God, I'm so sad that I cannot help.

KAKISSIS: She says Afghans deserve a future.


AFGHAN GIRLS' SOCCER TEAM: (Chanting) Afghanistan. Afghanistan.

KAKISSIS: The Dari word for future, ayenda, is also her team's new name. And before a match, the teammates huddle close, and they chant.


AFGHAN GIRLS' SOCCER TEAM: (Chanting) Afghanistan. Afghanistan. Afghanistan.

KAKISSIS: They chant Afghanistan as loud as they can.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Lisbon.


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