In the confusion and terror caused by the stunningly swift fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban after the United States’ formal withdrawal in 2021, the most pressing question was, “What will happen to the women?” Journalists, doctors, politicians, teachers, athletes — any women who had a profession outside their home would soon find they no longer did and that their lives, in many cases, were in danger. For members of the Afghan Women’s Youth Development Football team, who were well known in their communities, leaving the country was the only option.
The team members, support staff, and their families gathered in Kabul and, after weeks of trying to fly out, finally were able to enter Pakistan overland. It took an international effort led by Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan women’s team captain who now lives in Denmark, and supported by Leeds United Football club chairman Andrea Radrizzani, various nonprofit organizations, and New York–based Tzedek Association, to get the team on a flight out that was chartered by Kim Kardashian. In all, 132 people, including 18 team members, coaches, support staff, and their family members, arrived in the UK last November.
“I used the power of my network, the power of sport, to get them out. Now they are in a safe country and have support,” says Popal. “They left their dreams, but they want to learn English, go to university, engage in society, go to work.”
The team members are currently in temporary accommodations in the north of England, near Leeds. “The players have been through a very difficult journey, living in a hotel for more than four months,” says Valeria Ignarra, managing director of Play for Change, the organization founded by Radrizzani that is supporting the team’s everyday needs. Play for Change has helped them enroll in school, organized their twice-a-week practices and social activities, and is aiding them with mental health support, job counseling, and permanent accommodations.