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The Keeper

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The Keeper

How an Afghan soccer player and her teammates fled their homes, outran a murderous regime and forged the uncertain beginnings of a new life.

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By Juliet Macur

Aug. 31, 2022, 5:01 a.m. ET

To begin her goodbye, Fatima stood inside her family’s walled-in courtyard in Kabul, Afghanistan, shovel in hand, and pierced a patch of soil with the tip of its sharp blade.

Fighting back tears, she began to dig.

In the shade of a grapevine, with the sweet smell of rose bushes hanging heavy, she made a hole about two feet deep and just as wide, and placed some items into it.

Four soccer jerseys lovingly tucked into a plastic bag. Five golden trophies in the shape of a goalkeeper’s glove. They symbolized her accomplishments as the goalkeeper for the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, and she adored them, once even telling her mother, “These are the things that keep me alive.”

But on this day in mid-August 2021, they might get her killed.

Just days before, in a whir of trucks and rifles, the Taliban had conquered Kabul and begun searching for anyone considered an enemy. Government workers. Human rights activists. Judges. The targeted groups, now rushing to hide and save themselves, included female athletes like Fatima, who, according to the Taliban’s fundamentalist views, had defied Islam by playing a sport in public. The jerseys and trophies would identify her as a traitor.

If the Taliban found them, she and her family could be tortured and killed.

Just 19 years old, Fatima struggled to comprehend that her life, her country and all the gains Afghanistan had made in the 20 years since the Taliban last ruled were collapsing.

She feared that she would never finish her bachelor’s degree in economics, never open a business as she had hoped and never return to the soccer field or help bring about the day when Afghan women could thrive as equals to men.

Even more terrifying was the thought that she was about to die after barely having lived.

As she dug the hole in her backyard, she felt like she was digging her own grave.

The Family Helper

Fati checking herself in a mirror before a game. Her height — 5 feet 8 inches — is an asset as a goalkeeper.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Growing up, Fatima — who is called Fati (pronounced FAH-tee) by family and friends — was faced with constant reminders that women in Afghanistan had limited options. (At the request of Fati and her teammates, The New York Times is not using their last names because they fear retribution from the Taliban.)

Like many Afghan women, Fati’s mother never learned to read or write. She was engaged to be married at 13 and had the first of her five children a few years later. While raising her family, she moonlighted as a seamstress, sewing cushions that Afghans use as seating.

Seeing how her mother was forced to live, Fati, the second child, set out to do more and be more. She read and wrote for her mother. She tended to Kawsar, her youngest sister. She recalled once fixing the electricity in her house by fiddling with the wires as her mother stood by, holding her breath and whispering prayers.

Fati became proficient in English when she and her sister Zahra binge-watched Marvel films. Her father, who worked as a night guard in an apartment building, was so proud of Fati that he often called her his son.

At school, some students teased her because she was Hazara, an Afghan ethnic minority that is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim and remains a prominent target for Sunni militants like the Taliban. Fati bristled when they called Hazara people useless and stupid. She grew tough inside.

“If you are strong and hard, no one can beat you,” she recalled thinking, “and then you can always find your way.”

Then one day, three classmates waved her over and invited her to play soccer.

“You are so tall!” shouted Bahara, one of those girls. “Come join us. You will be a good goalkeeper!”

Finding Her Power

The Afghanistan Football Federation taught Fati the essentials of goalkeeping — be aggressive and be a leader.
Fati and her teammates in Kabul before the Taliban took control of the city.

Until then, Fati was not even aware that women in her country played organized soccer.

For Afghan girls, playing sports in public had long been risky. Religious hard-liners say women violate the Quran when they play soccer because men can still see the shape of their bodies even if they wear hijabs, long sleeves and pants. They call them prostitutes and threaten their fathers and brothers, saying they should be punished for letting a family member dishonor them.

But among more progressive Afghans, particularly women who had seen their rights curtailed under the Taliban’s first rule, from 1996 to 2001, there was a persistent push to allow girls and women to think and behave in ways once forbidden.

Fati said later that she basked in the moments on the soccer field when she could be aggressive, diving to save a shot or walloping the ball with a thunderous goal kick. She found it exhilarating to show her power by staring down an opponent who dared to think that scoring on her was a possibility.

Fati’s mother supported Fati’s love of soccer, telling her: “I don’t want you to be like me. Don’t rush to get married and end up kind of like a slave in the house.” She convinced Fati’s father that soccer was a worthy endeavor for a teenager who had aspirations of life beyond the kitchen.

Fati rose quickly in the sport.

After a national team scout saw her play at a high school tournament, he invited her to practice with the national squad. There, she learned to be agile and fearless, but most of all to be a leader. In a country that had been at war her whole life, Fati finally felt free, safe and in control.

Six months later, she was promoted to the senior national team, joining her friends Bahara, Mursal and Somaya on the squad.

They were the girls who had first invited Fati to play the game, and their relationship would reach much further and deeper than what happened on the field.

Searching for Inspiration

Fati’s club team celebrated a victory.CreditCredit…Najiba Noori / Agence France-Presse

It wasn’t long before soccer became a mooring for Fati’s whole life. It gave her the confidence to chase her goals.

Mornings, she worked at an organization called Good Neighbors, where she taught English to girls and women. Evenings, she studied economics at a university. Her older brother, Khaliqyar, feeling a duty to protect her, often escorted her there.

Other times, she remembered, she walked alone by moonlight, her hands shaking with nerves because the route was unsafe even in daylight. To go unnoticed, Fati dressed like a boy, wearing sneakers and baggy clothes, and covered her head with a hoodie.

The rest of her time was devoted to soccer. It was too dangerous for her team to play at home, so it traveled to countries like India, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, facing squads that practiced more, on better fields, with better coaches. Fati’s team lost again and again. Commenters on social media said the team was bad because Afghan women weren’t meant to play soccer.

The pressure to prove critics wrong became so great that once, after losing to Uzbekistan, Fati went back to her hotel and considered flinging herself off the fourth-floor balcony.

A teammate soothed Fati as she pleaded: “God, why aren’t there results? I want to win just one time.”

Back home, she looked everywhere for inspiration. Scouring YouTube for documentaries, she was moved by the story of Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“He tried so much to be accomplished, make his business bigger and make his recipe taste just right,” she said. “It really motivated me to try harder.”

Her team won its first game, finally, in 2019. Fati never wanted to let go of the feeling.

On social media, positive comments began to appear. She and her teammates were interviewed on television, becoming role models for other girls.

Her family was delighted. The soccer federation was paying Fati $100 a month to play on the national team and she received another $150 to head the women’s grass-roots effort and help manage the under-15 team.

Yet even as her life seemed on an upswing, a fault line was spreading throughout Afghanistan.

Terrorist attacks increased, with the violence reaching hospitals, schools and wedding halls. Hundreds of people, including many members of the Hazara community, were killed by both the Taliban and the Afghan branch of the Islamic State.

In the spring of 2021, President Biden announced the U.S. military would withdraw from Afghanistan. But when Fati heard about the Taliban making advances in the provinces, she told her teammates not to worry. The Taliban would never take over Kabul.

‘They Are Going to Kill the Athletes’

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul prompted officials at the football federation to destroy any evidence of the women’s program.CreditCredit…Reuters

One day in August, Fati was working inside the women’s soccer department of the Afghanistan Football Federation when an employee from the president’s office burst in, shouting that the Taliban were closing in on Kabul. Gather every document they could find, he said, and put the paperwork in a pile. They needed to destroy anything the Taliban could use to target female athletes.

“Hurry!” the man said. “We’re going to burn everything.”

Fati said she and a half-dozen other female workers began opening drawers, grabbing all the papers they could, sometimes stacking them to their chins as they carried them away.

Registration forms. Girls’ photos. Uniform order forms. Travel documents. The entire history of the women’s national team program, which began in 2007, soon lay in an unruly heap.

When Fati and her co-workers were done, they stopped to take a breath. It dawned on them: Their lives were really in danger.

Before leaving, Fati grabbed some passports and ID cards that players had left behind and slid them into her backpack. She knew those girls would be stranded in Afghanistan without them.

Three days later, Fati was headed to a final soccer practice for her local club when her phone began sounding off. Frantic messages were popping into the team’s group chat.

Reporting From Afghanistan

  • Inside the Fall of Kabul: ​In the summer of 2021, the Taliban took the Afghan capital with a speed that shocked the world. Our reporter and photographer witnessed it.
  • On Patrol: A group of Times journalists spent 12 days with a Taliban police unit in Kabul. Here is what they saw.
  • Face to Face: ​​A Times reporter who served as a Marine in Afghanistan returned to interview a Taliban commander he once fought.
  • A Photographer’s Journal: A look at 20 years of war in Afghanistan, chronicled through one Times photographer’s lens.

“Go home, training is canceled.”

“Don’t go outside, girls.”

Bahara, her former high school classmate who became a defender on the national team, shared a video she had made of the Taliban arriving in one of Kabul’s squares. She had been on her way from dental school when she saw trucks flying white Taliban flags, with soldiers honking horns and shooting guns.

“It’s real, girls,” Bahara wrote in Dari, the players’ native language. “They’re here.”

The city became almost unlivable, especially for women.

Stores and schools closed. Women shut themselves in their homes. The Taliban roamed the streets with paint cans to cover any evidence of shops like beauty salons.

Every day on Facebook, Fati read about killings and more killings. It was impossible to know what was true. Social media posts showed bloody images stamped 24 hours ago. And then one hour ago. And then one minute ago.

Fati and her teammates knew they needed to leave Afghanistan.

“Just be united and let’s see how we can get out of here and find a way,” Fati said in a text to her team. “Inshallah, there will be a way.”

One evening, the team received a text from a veteran player named Nilab. She was a team captain known for being outspoken about women’s rights.

She had received an anonymous text: Somehow if we see you, we will capture you and tie you up like a dog and we will not release you. We will kill you.

Nilab warned the group: Girls, you know they are going to kill the athletes. They will kill them and hang them from the goal in the Olympic Stadium, just like the Taliban did with people before.

Fati, who was at home, felt a chill go through her body as her family slept in the adjacent room. Nilab sounded scared. And Nilab, who several times had been abducted and beaten by militants who tried to silence her, was never scared.

Looking for help, Nilab tried to reach leaders of the Afghan Football Federation and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, but they didn’t respond.

At last, a breakthrough. Perhaps the team’s only hope.

Nilab received a text from Khalida Popal, a former captain of the Afghan women’s national team who had fled the country because of death threats prompted by her activism. In 2018, she had exposed a sexual abuse scandal involving Afghan soccer officials who were molesting members of the senior national team, which at the time was the level above Fati’s.

“I’m a little worried about you,” Popal wrote to Nilab in Dari. “Are you OK?”

Nilab responded with a harrowing voice message: “No, Khalida, I swear to God, we are locked in the house. You know that enemies are on every side of our house.”

She ended by saying, “We have no way to escape. If you can do anything for us, please help us.”

Within hours, Popal was added to the group chat and introduced herself.

I’m sorry for you girls that you can’t play soccer anymore. I am in contact with you from Denmark. I am going to try to find a way for you to get out of Afghanistan. I’m trying to get you out.

And wherever you end up, the U.S.A. or wherever, after that you can help your family.

But not now.

Forced to Go Quiet

Khalida Popal, on phone, with her mother at her parents’ apartment near Copenhagen. Getting the women’s soccer team out of Afghanistan became Popal’s obsession.Credit…Charlotte de la Fuente for The New York Times

As the Taliban closed in on Fati’s world, Popal was in her apartment north of Copenhagen, pulling together a trusted group of lawyers, sports officials and human rights activists who could help get the national team out of Afghanistan. She had worked with many of them, including Kat Craig, a British human rights lawyer, on the sexual abuse case.

The first task was to convince governments that the team needed saving.

Popal and the former Afghanistan women’s coach Kelly Lindsey rallied current and former players living outside Afghanistan to talk to the news media and spoke to reporters about the urgency of getting the girls to safety.

“Now our players are totally helpless,” Popal told CNN. “The biggest nightmare is that they are identified and they are taken by the Taliban.”

She told the girls to burn their national team jerseys and delete or lock their social media accounts. After years of encouraging them to speak out for the right of women to play sports, she was begging them to go quiet.

At the same time, Popal’s soccer connections searched for a country that would take the players. Maybe the United States. Or Canada. How about Germany or Belgium?

Nikki Dryden, an Olympian and immigration lawyer in Australia, called Craig Foster, a human rights activist and former captain of Australia’s national soccer team. Foster had connections in the Australian government. On a video call, he told a group that included Popal, “I’ll get Australia to take the players.”

Within days, Fati and her teammates received a thrilling text from Popal.

“We have a country,” it said.

Fati had no idea how far Australia was from Afghanistan. It seemed like another planet. But she was grateful to go anywhere that wasn’t under Taliban rule.

Popal issued instructions to the players: Start packing. Bring only what you need. Your passport and cellphone. Water. Some biscuits for a snack. A power pack to charge your phone.

Crucial documents would need to go along too.

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, the general secretary of FIFPRO, the international union for professional soccer players, supplied a letter titled, “EXTREMELY URGENT: Request for Airport Access for Women Football (Soccer) Player,” saying that the Australian government had agreed to take national team members on its next flight out of Kabul.

Fati had everything she needed to get out of the country. She just had to wait for word from Popal that she should go to the airport.

A Solemn Pledge

Bahara, above, and Mursal were among the players who recruited Fati to play soccer, and they remained her teammates.
Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Fati asked her old high school friends Bahara and Mursal to come over and collect their passports, which Fati had taken from the soccer federation. The two players arrived with Somaya, their former classmate.

Fati dragged a rug from the house to her backyard, beneath the grapevine where she loved to read and study, so the friends could sit and talk, drink cold water in the heat and eat Afghanistan’s famously delicious apples — for maybe the last time.

As military flights out of the country roared above them, the friends made a promise: If one of them made it out of Afghanistan, that person would work her whole life to save the rest.

“You will have the responsibility to help the others,” Fati said, as they all nodded. “You should do your best. I want to make that clear.”

Looming over them, Fati and her friends recalled, was the fear that there was no hope for any of them. They treated their goodbyes as final.

“We should have this last hug,” Mursal said, and they embraced.

Fati led her friends to the door and watched them depart. In their black dresses and full hijabs, they looked like dark floating clouds that slowly faded into the distance.

Fati went inside, grabbed her soccer trophies from the top of the refrigerator and headed to the backyard. The spot under the grapevine was a perfect place to dig.

After many restless hours, she fell into a deep sleep. At about 8:50 a.m., Bahara called, shouting into the phone: “Fati, wake up! Didn’t you get the messages? We have to be at the airport at 9 a.m.!”

On the day she would leave her old life behind, Fati could hardly think because she had a headache from lack of sleep. But within minutes of Bahara’s phone call, it was like a bomb of energy had exploded inside her brain.

She opened her blue school backpack and began tossing things in. A handful of markers. A necklace and earrings given to her by her closest friends. Old soccer credentials from tournaments. Photos of her family.

With each item she shoved into the bag, she could feel her heart pounding.

Her parents and siblings gathered around, flooding her with questions. Where are you going? Can we go with you? Popal had said she could not guarantee that any family member would be let into the airport, especially without a visa application. But she said the players could at least try.

Like a platoon commander, Fati began shouting orders.

“Everybody get ready to go!” she yelled. “Forget worrying about what to bring. Right now your life is the most important thing.”

Her mother started crying, and Fati told her to focus. Her mother’s assignment was to get cash and important documents, like Khaliqyar’s driver’s license and everyone’s ID cards. Fati’s brother Ali Reza, 15, sprinted to a store to buy food. Fati’s mother shoved pounds of provisions into her own bag, including chocolate chip cookies and juice boxes.

Zahra, 18, asked what she should wear. Fati told her to find the longest, darkest dress because they didn’t want to anger the Taliban.

Fati’s sister Kawsar, 4, repeatedly asked in her lilting voice if they were really going to Australia. With a forced smile, Fati said yes while combing Kawsar’s hair.

Fati put on a Spider-Gwen T-shirt she loved because it represented girl power. Over that, she donned a long robe-like covering she had bought at a secondhand store.

This was no abaya, the traditional Muslim dress. This was more like a black cloak Harry Potter would wear. Fati fastened it with a pin at the chest. The hood was so huge that when she draped it over her head, she couldn’t see.

Fati and her family were ready.

Before heading out the door, Fati said, she toured her house and courtyard one last time, examining everything so she would remember the details.

Goodbye, grapevine. Goodbye, jerseys and trophies, now safe beneath the ground. Goodbye, dreamy-looking mountains in the distance.

Goodbye, childhood.

As their taxi drove off, Fati turned to see her aunt, who had stayed behind. In the Afghan tradition of bidding people good luck when they take a trip, the aunt was splashing water onto the road with a watering can.

This time, more than ever, Fati would need all of that good luck.

A Born Leader

On the day she fled her home, Fati wore a Spider-Gwen T-shirt beneath her black cloak.
Some of the items Bahara took with her when she left Afghanistan.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Hidden under one baggy sleeve of Fati’s cloak, written in blue ballpoint pen on her arm, was the phone number of Haley Carter, a former assistant coach of the Afghanistan women’s program who was at home in Texas.

Carter, a former Marine Corps officer who served two tours in Iraq, had inside information to help players navigate Taliban checkpoints. Fati became her contact because she spoke the best English.

About a week before, the two had connected on WhatsApp.

From the start, Carter could tell Fati was a born leader because Fati was already coordinating logistics for some of her teammates. That put Carter at ease. She knew that the best partners in life-or-death situations were the ones who calmly take charge.

Before leaving for the airport, Fati thanked Carter for her help.

Carter responded: “There’s no reason to thank me. You are a player and I am a coach. It’s my job to work to make sure you are protected.”

When the national team players convened at their meeting place, a gas station outside the airport, they laughed. The group of mostly teenagers had never seen one another so hidden in fabric. Nilab looked like a spy in her abaya, gloves that covered her tattoos and sunglasses. Fati and the others were dripping sweat beneath their layers.

All around them was chaos, with thousands of people clambering to get into the airport and onto the final planes leaving Afghanistan.

Taliban soldiers repeatedly beat people with whips and electric cattle prods as the sound of gunshots echoed. Children wailed. A faint smell of gunpowder lingered.

Blood in the Dirt

Bahara shot video of Taliban fighters arriving in Kabul, threatening people with rifles and firing into the air.

For two days, Fati joined a group of players and some of their families — more than 100 people in all — on a miles-long trek around the airport, trying to find a way in. Her teammates asked: “What’s the plan? Where are we going?” Fati kept answering: “We’re close right now. Don’t worry. Almost there.” Carter was sending maps that showed the location of entry gates and Taliban checkpoints.

During the day, the temperature soared to the 90s, making the players and their families woozy with dehydration. Though some of them brought water, there wasn’t nearly enough. A national team member lived nearby, so some girls headed to her house to drink or use the bathroom.

At night, the temperatures dropped to the 60s and the group crowded together to stay warm and nap. But Fati stayed awake. She wanted to be alert when Carter texted her with instructions.

The North Gate was completely blocked, so at Carter’s suggestion, Fati led the group back to the gas station where the team had first assembled. From there, she and her brother Khaliqyar, 23, decided to check out the Abbey Gate, a different airport entrance. A player named Farida joined them.

Fati’s mother began to sob as they parted, saying, “Don’t go, why can’t someone else go?” and Fati almost cried, too.

“Please stop, you are making me weak,” she told her mother, handing her backpack to her because it had gotten too heavy to carry. She promised to return soon.

Players began texting the group chat, asking for directions to the best gate of entry.

We cannot do this much longer.

The Taliban is beating me.

Popal, coordinating the evacuation from Denmark, saw the desperate messages and insisted that everyone calm down. Writing in Dari, she told them to pretend it was the Champions League soccer final, but one without fouls or red cards. Use your elbows! Punch and hit people! Do anything to get to the gate!

To get inside the airport, Fati would have to pass through two Taliban checkpoints and a Taliban-laden area just before the main entrance.

Approaching the first checkpoint, she wasn’t sure how she would move even a single foot ahead. Two young girls, crushed by the crowd, gasped: “We don’t want to go here. We just want to be alive.” They reminded Fati of her little sister, Kawsar.

Fati yelled, “Give them air, don’t push them, they are just little!” as she used the hood of her cloak to fan them. Khaliqyar put one of the girls on his shoulders.

One Talib shot his gun so close to Fati that her ears rang for 15 minutes. Everything went black. Khaliqyar ran off to buy water from a vendor and revived Fati by splashing it in her face.

After a few minutes, they waded back into the crowd and pushed past the first checkpoint. Fati said she felt men’s hands groping her as she struggled to protect herself. She lashed out at one man, slapping him hard.

“This is embarrassing for you, look at yourself, you animal,” she said. “Our country is almost done and this is what you choose to do?”

The second checkpoint was even harder to pass. Two cars were parked nose-to-nose in the road, with Taliban soldiers standing guard. One man in the crowd recognized Fati and yelled, “Hey, that’s the national team player!”

As the Taliban edged toward Fati with their guns pointed at her, the crowd surged forward. The force was so powerful that one Talib was knocked down and trampled, splayed on the dirt beneath a sea of stampeding feet. Fati could see his bloody head as she passed. The other Taliban fighters began shooting toward the crowd.

In the confusion, Fati and Farida slid across the hoods of the cars, past the checkpoint. But Khaliqyar was stuck behind. A Taliban soldier slammed the butt of a rifle into Khaliqyar’s shoulder, knocking him down.

With 20 feet between them that now seemed like 20 miles, Khaliqyar made a choice. “Just get out of here, go! Save yourself!” he said, urging Fati forward.

He waved goodbye and then pointed to the sky, looking up to God.

Surging Past the Taliban

Throngs gathered at the entrance gate to the Kabul Airport after the Taliban took over. Fati and her teammates circled the airport for two days trying to get in. Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Popal had texted the players, urging them to push ahead on their own if they were to make it to the plane. Many were already separated from their families. Fati, now alone in the crowd, realized that she hadn’t said goodbye to her parents and siblings. She hadn’t even kissed Kawsar’s little cheeks.

Her body and mind were numb. Her parents, sisters and younger brother were who knows where, with her backpack. And Khaliqyar, her brother, friend and loyal protector, was also gone.

The voice in her head was relentless and harsh: It was such a long journey for nothing, and now your family will be in danger because of you. You’re a failure. You are the weakest person in the world.

Fati felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Farida, telling her not to cry.

Embarrassed, Fati snapped back into tough-girl mode.

“I’m the decision maker here. I’m stone-hearted,” she repeated to herself after stomping away. “I should listen to my sixth sense that’s telling me to go forward.”

Two checkpoints down. One last effort to get to the airport gate.

Fati’s group grew to six after she and Farida bumped into other women they knew. Nilab, their fearsome friend, was among them. The whole group looked ready for a fight, with dirt caked onto their hair and clothing, and hands black with filth.

The women forced their way through the crowd inch by inch, crouching low and scurrying forward, just as Nilab had learned in military school. Fati briefly separated from the others and was punched and kicked in the back by a Taliban fighter.

Now close to the gate, they stood and waved empty water bottles at American soldiers inside the airport. Those soldiers beckoned them forward. But Taliban fighters wouldn’t let them through.

So the women held hands and formed a chain, each player grasping so tightly that it hurt, and bulldozed their way toward the door.

Somehow they made it. An Australian soldier greeted them: “This is the end of the road for the Taliban and the end of the danger.”

Trapped in a Sewage Ditch

Bahara, center, rested after she and her teammates made it past the airport gate.
Bahara and her teammates spent hours standing in this sewage ditch before Fati came to help them.

All around her, Fati saw teammates, many with at least one family member. Standing there by herself, she didn’t feel happy to have conquered the crowds. She felt crushed.

After keeping her phone off to save a dying battery, she turned it on and called Khaliqyar. When he answered, she exhaled.

Her big brother had gone home after parting with Fati at the second checkpoint. Their parents and Kawsar were already there. Khaliqyar said they had given up trying for the airport gate after the Taliban beat Fati’s father with a cattle prod as he clutched a screaming Kawsar in his arms. Fati’s teenage siblings, Zahra and Ali Reza, were still outside the airport somewhere.

Fati told Khaliqyar he should come back and described the best way to get in. “Oh God, just come,” she told him.

She checked her messages. A group of players and family members, including Bahara and Mursal, were stuck just outside the gate, standing in a sewage ditch, knee-deep in watery muck, as American soldiers stood guard atop the high wall.

In her voice messages, Bahara was crying and begging for help, saying she couldn’t get in touch with any teammates. Mursal would later describe how she had tried to show a soldier her visa letters, only to have him kick her, point his rifle at her and threaten to shoot her.

Safe inside the airport, Fati remembered the promise she and her friends had made to one another. She had to try to save them.

After pleading to soldiers that she needed to leave the airport briefly to help her friends, she found an Australian officer to accompany her outside.

With her Harry Potter cloak flowing behind her, Fati walked along the outside wall to look for teammates. They found her first.

“Fati! Fati! We are here!” they shouted. When the people nearby heard those calls, they also started shouting, “Fati, help me! Please help me, Fati!” She tried her best to tune out those other people as she pointed to five teammates and at least three of their family members, whom the soldier lifted out of the river of sewage. To Mursal, it was as if an angel had come for them. She had been sure that Fati, whom she called her “bestie,” would never leave them behind.

And then, a miracle. Behind those girls, standing tall and looking stunningly clean because he had gone home and showered, was Khaliqyar. He had made it to the gate after following people to the sewage ditch, as Fati had instructed him to do. The only items he carried for himself were two sweatshirts and an extra pair of pants.

And he had her backpack.

A Flight to Dubai

The sound of weeping filled the plane when it left Kabul, as many of the refugees realized that they might be leaving Afghanistan for good.
Inside the Kabul airport, Fati’s hand was marked with a blue check to show that she had been put on the manifest for the next Australian military plane out of the country.

After spending a day in a processing area, the group of around 80 national team players and family members, smelling of sewage and sweat, boarded a military plane and huddled together inside its giant metal belly. They were bound for Dubai, the first stop before heading to Australia.

Carter, the former coach and Marine Corps officer, had demanded photographic proof that Fati and her teammates had boarded the plane. So Fati texted her a snapshot of the mass of passengers in front of her. The image made its way to thousands of people after Carter shared it on social media.

During takeoff, Fati and other players recalled, the sound of weeping rose above the sound of the engines. The next day, at a processing center in Dubai, Fati and Khaliqyar cried again when their teenage siblings, Zahra and Ali Reza, unexpectedly showed up. The two had been in the sewage water for more than a day before Alison Battisson, an Australian lawyer who was part of Popal’s group of helpers, got them out of the country, coordinating with a soldier to identify Ali Reza, who was wearing a mustard-colored vest that made him stand out in the crowd.

Fati was finally able to talk by phone to her mother, who thanked her for saving Khaliqyar, Zahra and Ali Reza.

“You saved my children when I could not,” her mother told her. “Take care and be strong.”

Those words echoed inside Fati’s head throughout the 14-hour plane ride to Australia.

When she arrived at her hotel in Sydney, Fati closed the door of her room, put her back against it and sank to the ground.

“Finally,” she said to herself. “I’m safe.”

Seven thousand miles from her family’s home in Afghanistan, Fati tried to distract her siblings and make them smile.

She brought them to her window to show them what Australia looked like, telling them it would be a wonderful place to live. They weren’t buying it. The city was on lockdown because of the pandemic — a zombie apocalypse, as Fati later described it — and they were still struggling to process what they’d been through.

Ali Reza had seen his father beaten with a whip and Zahra was devastated by the news that 130 people, including one of the Marines who had helped her out of the sewage ditch, had been killed in a suicide bombing. She was so overwhelmed with grief that she had been fainting during long sessions of sobbing.

Moya Dodd, a former member of the FIFA executive committee and former national team player from Australia, helped provide support.

“Could you bring Zahra some coloring books?” Fati texted Dodd, hoping that the distraction of coloring would make Zahra “stronger and fresher.”

But even Fati sometimes sat alone and asked why me, and why did all of this happen? She asked God for mercy.

“Sometimes I feel so much broken,” she said.

Head of the Household

Fati went to an Afghan market in a Melbourne suburb to buy food for the evening meal during Ramadan.
After dinner, Khaliqyar, Ali Reza and Zahra relaxed at home.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

In Australia, Fati hoped to become the woman and soccer player she had always wanted to be, free of a Taliban regime that would deny her and all women their humanity.

But those bigger goals would have to wait. First, she would need to be the head of a household, a surrogate mother to her siblings, a breadwinner, a translator.

Because of her English skills, she became an unofficial spokeswoman for the refugee group. One of her first tasks was compiling clothing sizes for everyone so that Dodd’s soccer charity, Women Onside, and other nonprofits could buy those items. Fati also fielded requests from her teammates and their family members. Like for more pistachios. Or body spray. Or oil made for curly hair.

A lot of people wanted to help the team after its escape made news around the world. Asma Mirzae, a former Afghan refugee on the board of Women Onside, was one of them. She drove more than 500 miles from Melbourne to deliver food to them made by her mother and others in her Afghan community.

Fati said that the first whiff of Mirzae’s dish of rice with raisins and carrots transported her back to dinnertime with her family. While she and other players ate, tears dripped from their cheeks onto their plates.

To thank those who rallied around the team, Fati drew an Afghan girl on sketch paper Dodd had given to her. The girl was dressed in a blue burqa, with a soccer ball in her hands and a broken heart. To one side was the Australian flag.

Fati was grateful to be in Australia, but essentially still had no home. From Sydney, most of the Afghan national team players moved to Melbourne, where they began their long wait for permanent visas so they could stay in the country.

After three months in a hotel, Fati chose a four-bedroom house in a suburb with a thriving Afghan community because her siblings wanted to be near other Afghans. Bahara left Kabul with no family, so Fati invited her to live with her. Paying bills was hard, even though everyone in the house received subsistence money from the government. Several times, Fati fell behind on rent and utilities, with her bank account once dipping to just $5.

Each morning, she woke to a colorful collage of sticky notes on the wall next to her twin bed. It was her to-do list, and it grew by the day.

Fill out school forms for Ali Reza. Help Khaliqyar find a job. Call her refugee services case manager to answer yet more questions, hours of questions, about herself and her siblings as they awaited their visas.

“I left my childhood back in Afghanistan,” Fati said one day, choking up but quickly composing herself.

Life in a new country was especially hard for Fati’s younger siblings. Back home, she and her family — like many Afghan families — slept on the floor in the same room. Now, on many mornings, Fati would nearly step on Zahra, who was sleeping on the floor next to her bed. And if Fati heard rustling at night, it would often be Ali Reza dragging his comforter downstairs, where he would set up camp on the living room floor.

Fati did her best to make her house a home. She stored the dining table in the garage because many Afghans prefer to eat while sitting on the floor. On top of the two Persian-style rugs she had received from a local soccer referee, she spread out a vinyl tablecloth so her family and friends could share meals the way they did in Kabul.

To break the day’s Ramadan fast one night in April, Bahara whipped up roast chicken and vegetables from a YouTube recipe. Fati made a batch of firni, an Afghan custard.

During the meal, Fati leaned on one of the donated couches in her living room and lamented that this didn’t feel like home because Afghans don’t use couches. They sit on large cushions, the kind Fati’s mother made.

When Bahara said they could eventually buy cushions for the house, Fati quickly said no.

“My mom will make them for us when she finally comes here,” she said, as the room grew quiet.

Fearing for Her Sister

Razia, Mursal, Kreshma, Fati and Muhadesa took a break near Melbourne.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Fati and her teammates had access to mental health experts who could help them process the trauma of being ripped from their country. But she and many others decided that holding unofficial, friends-only therapy sessions was a better idea.

In those sessions, they reminded themselves that it was a miracle they were alive and safe. But they felt guilty that so many people in their country — so many of their friends and relatives — were still suffering.

Mursal shared that her brother who was in the Afghan special forces was kidnapped, but managed to run away from his captors. Bahara, whose forearms were Popeye-level strong after working in her family’s sandal-making business, shared that she missed her family so much that her chest hurt.

“Did you hear about the bombing at the mosque?” Bahara said one day as she scanned her social media feed. Dozens of people, including many children, were killed or wounded when a roof collapsed on worshipers. The mosque was in an area where many Hazara lived, and Fati rushed to call her mother to see if everyone was OK.

Fati was sick about her little sister Kawsar, who had no future in Afghanistan beyond becoming a housewife. There was no school for girls after the sixth grade. No sports for girls and women. All the rights that Fati and her teammates had fought for had disappeared.

Yet during the daily calls with her mother and Kawsar, Fati remained upbeat. Her mother did, too, though Afghan life had grown arduous because food, jobs and money were now scarce. They put on a strong front for each other.

“Now that you are in Australia you can laugh, and I like that,” her mother told her one night, when Fati had friends over who were making a ruckus. “Remember those days back here when you had to wear a scarf and sit in the corner? It’s good that you are not here.”

But Fati felt torn inside. She had a recurring nightmare in which Taliban fighters were searching her home in Kabul, and her mother and Kawsar were frozen with fear. In the dream, her sister screamed, and Fati tried to scream, too, but nothing came out. When she awoke, she was soaked in sweat and shaking.

One day, Kawsar jumped into the frame of Fati’s video call with her mother and showed off drawings she had made in kindergarten.

“A fish!” the little girl said in Dari, pointing to a little blue fish. “The number 2! Another fish! The number 1!” She stopped and stared at Fati. “When can I show you these in person?”

“Soon, my darling, soon,” Fati said, changing the subject as she felt the tears coming. “Hey, what color do you like the best?”

Erased From Her Family History

Zahra and Fati packaging food at work. The jobs helped them pay bills and send money home, but kept them from focusing on their studies.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

In Afghanistan, Fati had been somebody. As the national team’s starting goalkeeper, she was often in the news. When traveling internationally for matches, she promoted a woman’s right to participate in sports and society.

In Australia, the new Fati was in blueprint stages.

As one of the national team’s captains, she was given opportunities to speak publicly about the team’s dramatic exit from Kabul, including addressing one crowd at the Australian Open and another at a human rights conference. Yet she was caught in a typical refugee limbo, unsure of where her life was going.

Twice a week, she and her sister Zahra worked at an Indian restaurant. They slipped on hairnets and long rubber gloves to spoon concoctions of curry into plastic bags for hours. The jobs allowed them to send money to their family. But as with so many refugees, those jobs took up their time when they needed to be studying English, crucial to success in their new lives.

Popal, the former player responsible for rescuing Fati and her teammates, continued to check in with the players. During one of those calls with Fati this spring, she noticed that Fati looked unsettled, so she asked how she was doing.

“If you want me to say a lie, I am good,” Fati said.

After the team left Afghanistan, the Taliban continued to search houses for anyone considered a traitor to the new regime. Days before Fati’s conversation with Popal, it had been Fati’s family’s turn.

When the soldiers asked how many people were living in the house, her father answered: “Three. We are just three. Always three.” They didn’t find anything incriminating.

Her mother told Fati that as a precaution she had deleted all of the photos of Fati from her phone. All evidence of Fati’s existence in the house was gone. Fati felt shattered.

She stopped sleeping. She ate junk food. Once again, she felt useless to do anything to help her family, and her mind started to swim with anxiety and remorse.

At least one thing could boost her mood, and Popal made it happen.

Popal had been hosting Sunday night video calls with the players to talk about things such as how to fit into Australian culture (don’t go swimming with all of your clothes on, for example). But Popal had made another call that ended up bringing Fati and the rest of the team much-needed joy.

She had called Foster, the man with so many Australian connections, and said, “It’s time that the team starts playing together again.”

‘Be Like a Lion’

Fati touched the Afghan flag on her new jersey.
Fati and her teammates carried the goal after their weekly training.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Fati didn’t know anything about Melbourne Victory, the club that stepped up to sponsor the Afghan women’s national team. But she quickly learned that it was a top-notch business that set out to give her and her teammates the best of everything.

Melbourne Victory assigned the players a coach who had just won the women’s championship for the club, bus transportation to and from practices and games, and trainers to get them back into shape after not playing an official match since early 2021.

One day, the club invited the team to a jersey presentation held at a soccer store.

Fati had never felt so appreciated. She and her teammates posed for photos, taped video interviews and received a pile of equipment, including cleats that cost more than $250. “Ooh, so professional,” she whispered to Bahara before they were given game jerseys that were branded Melbourne Victory but also honored their home country.

When Fati discovered a small Afghan flag on the back of her jersey, she ran her finger over it and remembered how proud she had been to represent her country.

After the ceremony, John Didulica, director of football for Melbourne Victory, said the club supported the team playing together again because it would be “the ultimate act of defiance to the Taliban.”

The team had its first game, against ETA Buffalo soccer club, in late April in Melbourne. That morning, Fati and her teammates received a text from Popal, in Dari:

I wish you success in the season. Be like a lion when you go on the field. Show all of them your power and your unity as Afghan women. Inshallah, you will be a success and success will be ours.

FIFA had not recognized the squad as a national team in exile, so the Afghan players were left to play in a state soccer league. About 75 fans, most of them supporting the other team, lined up against a chain-link fence that surrounded the field. A backdrop of chirping from white cockatoos and green lorikeets broke the pregame silence.

To the Afghan players, the game was as important as a championship final. Most were playing on empty stomachs because they were fasting for Ramadan. Yet they remained aggressive and fierce, relentlessly pushing the ball up the field. After one shot ricocheted off the opposing team’s left post, Fati yelled, “Why is this happening?”

The score was still 0-0 in the second half when an attacking Afghan midfielder took the ball on a breakaway run and sent it flying into the net. The players erupted in cheers, jumping on one another in celebration.

The sound of the referee’s whistle broke their hearts. An Afghan player had been offside. The official trotted to the team’s bench, saying, “I can’t sleep if I allow that.”

The game ended, 0-0. Coach Jeff Hopkins told the team he was content with the result, particularly because the players hadn’t had much time to practice together. Fati translated.

“No sad faces, OK? No sad faces,” he said to a group of players with sad faces. “It’s so good for us just to see you out there playing football.”

Fati was the last to board the bus back home, greeted by applause for her performance in goal.

“Our Batman!” Bahara shouted because Fati had fended off every shot that came her way. Fati laughed, waving off the compliments.

In the months after that day, Fati remained fractured, her soul in two places. Her parents and Kawsar were still a world away, and she worried that she would never see them again. No one knew when, or if, they would get visas.

But on this day, on the bus after her first soccer game in her new country, among her teammates, Fati saw new possibilities.

“It was powerful for us to play together again,” she said, propping her knees on the seat in front of her. “I feel like we are here and alive.”

She paused before adding, “I have the power to be me again.”

Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

About the Reporting

Juliet Macur spent a year reporting the story of Fati’s life in soccer, her escape from Kabul and her time in Australia. Macur, a New York Times staff writer since 2004, interviewed more than three dozen people, including current and former members of the Afghan women’s national soccer team.

During her reporting, Macur spoke to members of the group that arranged for the safe passage of Fati and her teammates to Australia. Among that group was a former national team captain, Khalida Popal, whom Macur interviewed for dozens of hours in Europe and Washington, D.C. Others were the lawyers, human rights advocates and sports officials who helped orchestrate the escape.

The scenes depicting Fati’s early life and her flight from Afghanistan are based on more than 200 hours of interviews with Fati and her family, close friends and teammates. Many details were confirmed through interviews with people involved in the team’s evacuation, text and voice messages, emails and written calendar notes. For additional information, Macur examined photos, videos, documents, social media feeds and news reports.

In April, Macur and Gabriela Bhaskar, a Times photographer, traveled to Australia, where they observed the players’ lives firsthand, shadowing them as they prepared for and then played their first game together in more than a year.

Safiullah Padshah provided translation from Kabul and Wajma Ibrahimi Parwak from Melbourne.

Editing by Mike Wilson and Ken Plutnicki. Photo editing by Elijah Walker. Additional production by Jonathan Ellis, Meg Felling, Dahlia Kozlowsky and Matt Ruby.

Photographs at top by Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times and Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times. Video by AFPTV, via Getty Images. The photo at the airport was taken by Bahara.

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