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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robyn Vinter

‘I need mum and dad here’: the charity helping young Afghan footballers reunite with relatives

From left: Elaha Safdari, Najma Arifi and Narges Mayeli. Safdari: ‘We are safe, but my parents are not.’
From left: Elaha Safdari, Najma Arifi and Narges Mayeli. Safdari: ‘We are safe, but my parents are not.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Observer

Two years on from their arrival in South Yorkshire, young footballers Elaha Safdari, Najma Arifi and Narges Mayeli are still baffled by the array of regional accents in the UK. “I’m always like, ‘Pardon? Can you please repeat? What did you say?’” laughs Arifi, now 20.

This barrier is only a minor hurdle for the trio, who were forced to flee for their lives when the west pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban seized power in August 2021.

For women in the country, life as they knew it ended. They were unable to work, go to school or even leave their home without being accompanied by a male relative. And they were forbidden to play football, despite being in the national development squad.

No one was prepared for the sudden takeover, but the squad’s 35 teenage footballers quickly realised they had to leave. “We had 24 hours to decide,” said Mayeli, also 20.

This would become a pivotal moment for Safdari and her family. Her father was too ill to make the journey and so her parents stayed behind. Her older sister, a computer science graduate who had a scholarship in Spain, chose to look after her parents.

Safdari said: “We were in a bad situation, we didn’t have enough time to decide who wants to stay with my mum and my dad. My sister, who is so kind, said, ‘I’m going to stay with dad, and you guys can go.’”

The group of 35, plus almost 100 relatives, left together after finding out they would probably be able to come to the UK, but it was a tense few weeks before arrangements were in place. Each person had only one pair of shoes and a backpack with a change of clothes.

Arifi remembers travelling with her seven-year-old brother, terrified the Taliban would not consider him old enough to accompany her. At checkpoints, other men in the group would pretend to be the fathers and brothers of girls travelling without a male family member. “It was really hard – I couldn’t sleep and I was just hugging my brother,” she said.

They spent 25 days hiding in hotels in Kabul before escaping to Pakistan, where they spent a month on temporary visas. But even there it wasn’t safe as the Taliban also had a presence in Pakistan.

Thanks to wrangling and diplomacy from billionaire philanthropists, NGO workers, footballers, Fifa members, advisers and lawyers, they were granted asylum in the UK and evacuated on a commercial flight, in an operation one called “a modern-day Schindler’s List”.

But that was not the end of the ordeal, particularly for Safdari. She is battling to be reunited with her parents, who remain in Afghanistan, and whom she has not seen for two years. She has been given a lawyer by one of the Guardian and Observer’s 2023 charity appeal partners, Refugee Council.

“[My parents] are not safe and we’re worried about them,” she said tearfully. “We have a good life here. We’re happy, we’re safe, we’re going to school. We can do whatever we want in the morning, in the night. But I’m really worried about my parents, and I’m requesting the UK government to bring them here.”

Others are also separated from their parents. Arifi said: “One of our team members, she turned 15 and came here with her older brother, she’s growing up without a mum and dad.”

Duncan Wells, head of resettlement at Refugee Council (part of Refugee Councils of Britain), said: “Sadly, some of the Afghans we work with, including Elaha and other girls on this team, are still separated from close family members, and are desperately worried about them. We’d like the government to deliver on its promises and offer safe ways for Afghan families to be reunited here, just as we do for Ukrainian families.”

Mayeli said Refugee Council and the hotel staff became like family to the traumatised players and their families. “I can’t put into words how much the council helped us. I was feeling very stressed and anxious. I was like, ‘How are we going to survive in this country?’”

She added: “Nowadays when I see the girls, everyone is really busy with work, training. They’re just trying to grow and it really makes me happy. I think we all pretty much have settled.”

All three women are studying, while others on their team have jobs. They each play for different clubs, though Safdari – the youngest goalkeeper to compete in the Afghan championship league – has had a torn knee ligament. Mayeli and Arifi are both in FA leadership programmes.

Wells said: “We’re proud of our tradition of welcoming refugees – from all around the world – who have always brought so much to this country, being a part of local communities as our friends, neighbours and colleagues. With help from Guardian readers, we will continue to speak out in support of this, to remind everyone that refugees help make us who we are today.”

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