What Will Happen to the Athletes of Afghanistan?

As the situation in Afghanistan becomes increasingly dire, the Taliban has announced that it would not extend the August 31 deadline for evacuation, and insisted that foreign entities leave the country. Among those attempting to flee are many from the athletic community. Restrictions are about to be imposed by the Taliban upon Afghan musicians, activists, and, yes, athletes. Women, for example, will not be permitted to play in any of the leagues or sports that had been carefully established over the past 10 years.

Earlier this week, more than 50 Afghan women athletes were evacuated to Australia. Not only will women no longer be permitted to participate in sports publicly, but those known to be supporters of what is now deemed impermissible will be targeted, and possibly punished, by the new regime.

While it is imperative to understand complexities and nuances when discussing Afghanistan, the ugly and dangerous truth about what life under Taliban means for many athletes is all too obvious.

Jamil S. is a 28-year-old athlete of a popular action sport (an extreme sport involving heights or high risk) hoping to be evacuated before the cutoff. His commitment to growing sports makes him an easy target for authorities. Jamil is Hazara, a marginalized ethnic group within Afghanistan that practices Shia Islam. He has spent years dedicating his time to coaching and mentoring girls and boys. He was a student in accounting and finance before his dreams of growing sports and of his education came to a crashing halt.

“Right now the situation is very unpredictable for anyone,” Jamil told The Nation via e-mail from Afghanistan. “We spent many years spreading the art of this new sport and motivating girls and boys to practice and perform in different stages. As the Taliban are against these activities, they would definitely find us soon. They will consider punishment for us as they never let anything be forgiven. People are striving to survive. Their sports would not be an option now. Every plan and dream got shattered."

The fear of retribution is palpable for many athletes, and it is both heartbreaking and enraging that something as beautiful as sports, a connector of communities, a healer of trauma, and an enabler of strength and joy, could be targeted by this regime. Jamil told The Nation that two of his teammates have already been beaten by the Taliban. The stress and chaos created in the lives of Afghans cannot be overstated.

Farheen Siddiqi, an immigration attorney based in Texas, says that the Biden administration and the international community need to put pressure on the Taliban to provide more time for evacuations. It is imperative for the international community to not forget marginalized communities within Afghanistan—like the Hazaras—who have consistently been subjected to persecution. “Although there has been a priority list for evacuations (US citizens, lawful permanent residents, nationals of other countries, persons who assisted US and NATO forces), Afghan nationals belonging to a vulnerable group have been left with no way out,” Siddiqi explained via text message.

Sports have been embraced by youth and communities across the country. Over 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population is made up of youth, and, according to Jamil, the growth of action sports and of regular leagues and teams was a source of invigoration and excitement. “People were really amazed to see these sports, as they were new…and liked these sports not only in the center of the capital but in the far most remote regions of Afghanistan.”

The reality is that any progress for action sports in Afghanistan over the last decade such as skateboarding, mountain climbing, running or snowboarding will most likely be decimated. Nontraditional sports, as popular as they may be, will not be looked upon favorably. The prospect of women’s participation in any sport does not look hopeful.

There is an urgent need for sports communities around the world to rally together and provide support for and solidarity with Afghan athletes. There have been desperate cries for help from various sports organizations in Afghanistan, requesting immediate assistance.

Sharing of information has been critical, and Afghans abroad as well as concerned citizens and humanitarian organizations have been sharing practical information such as Google documents and actionable steps to help in any way possible.

For Jamil, evacuation and resettlement is the best and safest option. Particularly as he is a member of a persecuted community. Time is quickly winding down and the sense of urgency is increasing. And still, he must wait.

“The current situation is very dangerous for artists and performers like us,” Jamil wrote. “We need to move to a safe place in order to escape the extremists. We are caged inside the prison. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of style dressing, and freedom of life is taken.”

As the sounds of cheering from elated fans no longer echo, and the thrill of athletes performing and competing no longer exists, we must now focus on the survival and safety of all Afghans, including athletes who are at particular risk. We must demand more time to airlift them out and a safe place for them to live. And this must be part of a broader demand for refugee status for all seeking safe harbor. And we must hope that one day, if they choose, they can return home, wear their kits again, and compete proudly and boldly for a land they love.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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