The political, economic and social situation in Afghanistan became even more precarious after the Taliban took power last August. Therefore, many of its citizens are trying to leave the country, and Portugal had the opportunity to welcome the junior women's soccer team, representing their country's national team in the sport.
The group made of 26 young women, aged between 15 and 25, arrived in Portugal on September 19, almost a month after the fall of the Kabul government. The girls are now waiting for a second chance at building their lives.
Through numerous contacts and interviews with the Portuguese press, the general public opinion learnt that they are all different in their outward appearance (some wear hijab, the Islamic veil; others a cap; others still wear western clothing), they naturally have different career ideas (there are aspiring doctors, engineers, and even a film director), but they all have the same dream: to play soccer.
The life left behind and dreams of the future
In Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, these girls were forbidden to play sports and go to school, and they were persecuted for defending theirs and human rights at large.
A rescue mission nicknamed "Operation Soccer Ball" was coordinated by an international coalition of former US military and intelligence officials, with help from the Portuguese authorities, and a non-profit organization founded by Nic McKinley in Dallas, to get the girls out of Afghanistan.
The A-team national coach described the operation in terms of "pride " and "relief". The girls were congratulated by many sports personalities, such as Julie Foudy, one of the US soccer top stars.
"I want to be a player known all over the world, and a good doctor too", said Fisthail Qasime, the 16-year-old forward who is known for being a top scorer.
"I would like to be an engineer, but I wanted to continue playing soccer and be a good defender", explained 17-year-old Parisa Amir.
The young girl let us know the conundrum she is experiencing: they feel the joy of escaping a bleak future and, at the same time, they express concern for that part of their families that stayed behind: "I came with my brother, my sister and my father, but my little brother and my mother are still in Afghanistan. I worry about them. The situation is getting worse day by day. It is unbelievable; anything can happen. We should have the right to live like these girls here. I can't do anything now, but I will try to show in the future that I am powerful", Parisa relays to the press. She continues: "We are delighted to come to Portugal because in Afghanistan they wouldn't let us play soccer, and here we can play, we can have our goals, and we can improve our lives. These are our wishes: to play soccer and to be better players in the future".
The Taliban threat to "cut off the head" of women who played soccer still echoes in the memory of the young woman, who recalled the days before she fled the country: "Before escaping, we were hiding with our families, a backpack, two pieces of clothing...", Parisa said to journalists.
Soccer as identity and overcoming
The Afghan women's soccer team captain, Farkhunda Muhtaj, 23, lives in Canada but came to Lisbon to help these young women's integration, for whom she was already a reference, and highlighted the "opportunity of a lifetime" they found in Portugal: "They will train in this country, they will get an education, they already love the city, and they will positively impact Portuguese society," she said.
"In Afghanistan, playing soccer is now against social norms, and so many women are not well regarded when competing in sports. But for these girls, soccer is their identity, their passion, and they are determined. Being able to continue to play and have a new chapter in their life is a great opportunity for them, and they will excel," explained the captain.
Portugal has so far received 251 Afghans through the emergency corridor opened after the Taliban occupation. Of these, about 80 are athletes from the women's soccer team and their families.