Forced to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, members of the Afghan women's youth football team and their families have sought refuge in Portugal and are back training in the Lisbon suburbs.
Like every other young footballer, Sarah dreams that one day she will be a good player like star-striker Christiano Ronaldo. Now that she has arrived safely in Portugal, she may even get the chance to meet her idol.
The 15-year-old is one of several players from Afghanistan’s national female youth squad who fled their country after the Taliban seized power in August. Portugal has offered the young footballers asylum – and an opportunity to chase their dreams.
As she visited Lisbon’s landmark Belem Tower on the River Tagus with her mother and teammates, Sarah said she felt free. As well as pursuing her passion for football, she wants to be "a big businesswoman" in Portugal, she told the Reuters news agency.
The young woman admitted that leaving her homeland Afghanistan was painful. She would like to go back home on day, but only if she can live freely.
Her mother is less optimistic. She experienced first-hand the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when women could not work and girls were banned from school. Women had to be covered and accompanied by a male relative when they left home.
A senior Taliban official said after the August 15 takeover that women would probably not be allowed to play sport because it was "not necessary" and their bodies might be exposed.
The youth team landed in Portugal on September 19. They are currently staying in hotels in the Lisbon suburbs while they prepare for a friendly match with Benfica's women's team this Saturday. Luckily, although they left Afghanistan with hardly any equipment, a surprise visit this week solved that problem.
On Wednesday, the captain of the Afghanistan women's senior national team, Farkhunda Muhtaj, flew into Lisbon to meet with the youth team players.
From her home in Canada, where she works as assistant soccer coach at a local university, Muhtaj has been in touch with the girls throughout the evacuation process, codenamed Operation Soccer Balls. It managed to rescue a total of 80 people – the female youth team and family members, including babies.
"The reason we took on this mission (to evacuate the team) was to ensure they can aspire and play the sport they love," said Muhtaj.
When she turned up on Wednesday night, the girls were ecstatic. They hugged. Some could not hold back the tears. "They been through so much, so many challenges," Muhtaj told Reuters. "They were just resilient and they were able to make it happen."
One relative, 25-year-old Zaki Rasa, recalled the chaos at the Kabul airport, where he spent three days. He is now delighted to be in Portugal, where he wants to continue his studies. "There is some uncertainty about the future," he said. "The important thing is that we are safe."
With Reuters, AFP