Behind the Scenes of an Afghan (Australian) Soccer Story

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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.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, I read stories online about members of the Afghan women’s national soccer team fleeing the country.

And I wanted to know more.

As a Sports reporter for The New York Times, I hoped to learn who these women were and understand what had moved them to play soccer even though it was risky for girls to play sports in a restrictive and patriarchal culture.

And as the daughter of refugees — my parents came to the United States with nothing after spending years in the Nazi labor camps during World War II — I also was curious about what life would be like for the players after they left Kabul. How would these Afghan players restart their lives in a new country?

I wanted to tell the whole story, including the resettlement chapter of a refugee’s life. It is the one we often don’t read, because the world usually encounters refugees only when they are in transit. After more than a year of reporting, that story was recently published in The Times.

The first step was tracking down one of the players who had fled. Finding that person turned out to be complicated.

Among the first people I talked to about the team for the article was Craig Foster, a human rights advocate and a former captain of the Australian national soccer team. On Twitter, he had shared a thank-you letter and drawings made by Afghan players — including one that showed a girl in a burqa, with a soccer ball and a broken heart — so I knew he had direct contact with them.

But when I asked him to connect me with some of the players, he told me it was too early for them to talk to reporters. They were still processing their trauma, he said, and they were concerned for their safety.

I respected that. Having interviewed many people experiencing trauma, including dozens of victims of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor who is now in prison after molesting hundreds of girls and women, I knew I needed to give the players space. When it was safe for the soccer players to talk, and when they were ready to share their stories in detail, I would be ready to listen.

After weeks of interviews with people involved in the evacuation, I decided that Khalida Popal, the former captain of the Afghan national team who had fled Afghanistan in 2011, was the person who could make my story happen. I knew Popal from a previous article I’d written about Afghan women’s soccer players.

But every time I called or texted Popal, who lives in Denmark, she was busy trying to help evacuate other players from Kabul.

Finally, when I learned that Popal would be in Paris in November to accept an award for leading the evacuation effort, I took it as my chance to talk to her. With the support of my editors Mike Wilson and Randy Archibold, I hopped on a plane and was relieved when she let me shadow her.

A week later, Popal finally trusted me enough to share the contact information of two current players. One was a goalkeeper named Fatima, who had fled Kabul for Australia. (Because they feared retribution from the Taliban, she and her teammates asked that The New York Times not use their last names.)

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 — shedding tears as she talked about what she had been through.

That call would lead to dozens more. Most times, thanks to a the 14-hour time difference, we’d talk around midnight Eastern time. During these conversations, Fati shared countless details about playing soccer in Afghanistan, her escape and her life in Australia.

Through these conversations, I learned that Fati was the player who drew the pictures that I had seen on Twitter. It was her way of thanking everyone who had supported the team.

Australia had finally opened its borders after being closed to travelers because of the coronavirus pandemic, so in April, I flew to Melbourne with a photographer, Gabriela Bhaskar, and finally came face to face with Fati. 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.

Even after I left Australia, Fati and I kept talking every few days for the article. Over the course of my reporting, I tallied more than 200 hours of interviews with her and her family, friends and teammates.

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.

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