Behind the Scenes of an Afghan (Australian) Soccer Story

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Juliet Macur, a sports reporter who traveled to Australia for an in-depth look about how an Afghan soccer player and her teammates fled the Taliban and began new lives.

Last August, just days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, I began to read stories about members of the Afghan women’s national soccer team fleeing the country. And I wanted to know more.

Who were these women and how did they become so brave? What moved them to play soccer even though it was risky for girls to play sports in a restrictive and patriarchal culture?

I also was curious about what life would be like for the players after they left Kabul. My parents became refugees after spending years in the Nazi labor camps during World War II. Both arrived in the United States with nothing. How would these Afghan players restart their lives from nothing?

I wanted to tell the whole story, but I was particularly interested in the resettlement chapter of a refugee’s life. It is the one we often don’t read about because the world usually encounters refugees only when they are in transit.

But first I needed to track down one of the players who fled. Finding that person turned out to be complicated.

Among the first people I talked to about the team was Craig Foster, a human rights advocate and former captain of the Australian soccer team. He had tweeted a letter and drawings made by the players, so I knew he had direct contact with them.

When I asked him to connect me with some of the players, he said, not yet. It was too dangerous for them to talk to reporters because the Taliban might be targeting their families in Kabul. Besides, the players were still processing the trauma that they had just endured.

Having interviewed many people experiencing trauma — including dozens of victims of abuse by Lawrence G. Nassar, long the doctor for the United States women’s gymnastics team — I knew I needed to give the players space. But when it was safe and they were ready, I wanted to be at the front of the line.

The person who first pulled me to the front was Khalida Popal, the former captain of the Afghan national team who had orchestrated its escape.

Initially, Popal, who lives in Denmark, was still trying to evacuate soccer players from Afghanistan and did not return my texts or calls. So with the support of my editors Mike Wilson and Randy Archibold, I hopped on a plane to track her down. I was relieved to find her at a sports conference in Paris, and she let me shadow her.

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.

Popal finally trusted me enough to share the contact information of two current Afghan players. One was a goalkeeper named Fatima.

When I called Fatima, it was as if she had been waiting for me.

We talked on a video call for more than four hours, with Fatima — who goes by Fati — crying as she talked about being torn from her parents and youngest sister.

That first call would lead to dozens more as Australia was closed to international travel because of the pandemic. Most times, we’d talk past midnight for me here on the East Coast because of the 14-hour time difference, and Fati shared countless details about her past and current life.

Those calls became her catharsis for her pain, she would tell me later, because she didn’t want to see a psychologist.

I would go on to learn that Fati was the player who drew the pictures that Foster had posted on Twitter. And that she had helped save five teammates from a sewage ditch outside the Kabul airport. Without knowing it, I had been looking for her all along.

After Australia opened up to travelers, I showed up in Melbourne with the photographer Gabriela Bhaskar in April and finally came face to face with Fati, who was working in the kitchen of an Indian restaurant.

I felt joy and relief to see her in person. Writing her story without meeting her didn’t seem right, and I was happy that I didn’t have to do it.

We would go on to share Ramadan meals as I got to know her even better and met her family and teammates. I also had the chance to see her play soccer when the national team played its first game in more than a year, and I had never seen her smile as she did that day.

Even after I left Australia, Fati and I kept talking every few days, so I could continue my reporting.

When I asked her this week how she was doing, she said, “I’m good, Juliet, I’m good. But you know there are always ups and downs.”

Now for this week’s stories.

Australia and New Zealand

Justin Welby, center, the global leader of the Anglican Church, leading the opening service at Lambeth in Kent, England, on July 31.Credit…Gareth Fuller/Press Association, via Getty Images
  • The Anglican Church’s ‘Kick in the Guts’ to Gay Parishioners. Divisions over the acceptance of homosexuality have proved intractable both on a global level and inside even liberal-leaning countries like New Zealand.

  • World-Class Lessons on Zero-Waste. Designers from around the world find inspiration in traditional garment-making in their quest to eliminate fabric waste.

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

  • Solomon Islands Suspends Visits by Foreign Military Ships, Raising Concerns in U.S.The move came after top U.S. officials visited the Pacific nation to bolster ties and deliver warnings about its new security agreement with China.

  • Chris Dawson, Subject of ‘Teacher’s Pet’ Podcast, Is Found Guilty of Wife’s Murder. Mr. Dawson was on trial in Australia. His wife, Lynette Dawson, went missing in 1982, and a popular podcast brought new attention to the cold case.

  • In Comebacks, Serena Williams Shows ‘You Can Never Underestimate Her.’Big moments on the biggest stages cemented Williams’s reputation as the queen of comebacks.

  • Referendum Seeks to Mend the Open Wound at Australia’s Heart. The new prime minister is seeking support for an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament, even enlisting the backing of Shaquille O’Neal. Here’s what it would entail, and why it faces an uncertain path.

Around the Times

The sea beginning to cover the causeway to Holy Island as high tide approaches.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times
  • A Holy British Island, Where the Reckless Try to Outrace the Tide. As the cradle of Christianity in northern England, the isle of Lindisfarne attracts 650,000 visitors a year, some of whom ignore the warning signs of when it’s safe to cross a causeway that twice a day is submerged.

  • Trump’s Tastes in Intelligence: Power and Leverage. President Donald J. Trump’s interests during classified briefings have a new resonance amid the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into his handling of sensitive documents.

  • In a Japanese Nursing Home, Some Workers Are Babies. They get paid in formula and diapers, and their work hours are flexible, in a program that connects people across generations and brightens lives.

  • What Does a Dancing Body Feel Like in Ukraine? ‘I Am a Gun.’The country’s experimental dance artists, independent and resilient, are using their skills in a new arena: war.

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