‘They saved themselves’: Afghan athletes praised for determination to find refuge in Australia

A human rights lawyer says Afghan athletes and their families experienced a harrowing ordeal in their effort to leave Kabul after some were “mugged” and forced to sleep “rough” at the city’s airport. 

A group of more than 50 of Afghanistan’s athletes and dependants — including two Paralympians — have been accepted by the Australian government on humanitarian grounds.

Lawyer and Canadian Olympian Nikki Dryden, who was among those who lobbied on behalf of the group, said they went through a terrifying experience at Kabul airport.

“They spent the first 24 hours at the airport in lines, thousands of people, and nothing happened and they were getting very angry, upset, devastated,” she told the ABC.

Ms Dryden played down the role of those based in Australia who lobbied the federal government.

She said the determination of the athletes and their families was responsible for them being granted passage out of Afghanistan.

“Every single one of them who is going to make it to Australia did it on their own,” Ms Dryden said.

“That’s what’s so extraordinary about the refugee story and I really want to everybody to know — yes, we gave them a hand, but they did it on their own.

“I could not get them to the gate, I could not get anyone to save them, they saved themselves.”

Ms Dryden said the athletes and their families were not prepared to give up on their effort to leave Afghanistan.

“The thing I really want to stress — and I think which is what makes immigrants and refugees so extraordinary — they were calling for help for days and nobody came out to get them,” she said.

“We had people from five different governments saying maybe they could try to come out, but the policy is that foreign governments were not allowed to leave the airport and that did not happen.”

Ms Dryden said she was unsure if the two Afghan Paralympians — Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rosouli — would be able to compete at the Tokyo Games.

“They’re Paralympians, they’re resilient,” she said.

“But there’s only so much the human spirit can take and I hope that they are protected and safe, and I know that they are safely out of Afghanistan.

“For people living with a disability in a developing country, [it] can be very difficult and they are two very shy people, and what they did was extraordinary and they are already Paralympians.”

Kurt Fearnley grimaces as he crosses the finish line to win silver.
Kurt Fearnley was among those who showed support for the Afghan athletes.(

AAP: Dean Lewins


Australian Paralympic great Kurt Fearnley was among those who joined Dryden in supporting the effort to provide the athletes with refuge in Australia.

Fearnley said the entire Paralympic movement was relieved for the Afghan athletes.

“I feel like those particular athletes, Zakia and Hossainthey need to be given the space to tell their story at some point in time,” he said.

“But let’s talk about the story of disability, let’s talk about the story of the Paralympic movement, [as] they are a member of my family as well.

“It extends across borders. The relief no doubt that is going through the entire Paralympic family that two members of our family are safe is incredible.”

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