Three words were all it took. Three simple words – “are you OK?” – that, like a stone dropped in a lake, created ripple effects that would change the lives of some in Afghanistan’s women’s football community, perhaps forever.
In August, Australian referee Joanna Charaktis was sitting in lockdown in Melbourne. Like many around the world, she watched on the news as the Taliban rapidly took control of Afghanistan after capturing its capital city, Kabul.
Charaktis felt entirely helpless. She wanted to help, but she didn’t know how. The problem was so big, so complex, and she was just one person. What kind of impact could she possibly have?
“I had met a girl in my football travels who was from Afghanistan, who is heavily involved in football there and I remembered that I had her on Facebook,” Charaktis told ABC.
“So I thought, ‘Maybe I should reach out?’ but I got stuck because part of me felt like she probably had 100 other issues on her mind and I didn’t want to contribute to that negatively. What can I really do, after all?
“But I messaged her anyway and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been hearing what’s happening in your country, it’s really awful, are you OK?’
“She replied and said, ‘Look, it’s really bad; I’m fearing for my life, I’m scared the Taliban is going to come for me because of my involvement in football.’
“She was basically just sitting around waiting with not much hope. Again, I felt that same helplessness; I didn’t even know what to say – what can you say? All you want to do is help them, to just say, ‘I’m coming to get you, I’ll get you out.’
“I told her I’d reach out again in a couple of days, but she reached out first. She sent me a letter that Alex Hawke, our Minister for Immigration, had released about bringing 3,000 Afghans to Australia on the rescue mission. She sent that to me and asked if I could help her with it. So I called his office, wrote an email, whatever. Didn’t hear back.
“But then I thought, ‘How can I help from a football perspective?’ So I spoke to my mentor, [referee] Allyson Flynn, and told her the story. She had just been included in a mentoring program with Women Onside and had been paired with [former Matilda] Moya Dodd.
“She [Flynn] reached out to Moya, who said to her, ‘There’s this whole rescue mission happening for the national football team, so maybe we can get these people on that list’.
A way to offer help
Over the next few days, Charaktis and Dodd found themselves as the contact points for some of the women on the ground in Kabul, relaying messages, tracking locations and fielding questions as the evacuation unfolded.
The fleeing Afghans were advised to write the Australians’ phone numbers on their arms, to be called if a soldier asked to verify their identity. Photos of passports and birth certificates were sent to their overseas contacts via WhatsApp in case the Taliban destroyed the physical copies.
Charaktis, for her part, was in constant communication with her friend, providing emotional support and advice during some of the evacuation’s most difficult and stressful moments. She recalls one of the most frightening when her friend arrived at Kabul airport to discover the gates were locked.
“It was that voice message I got from her,” Charaktis said. “In the background, it was really loud, you could tell there were a lot of people. And just hearing the despair in her voice: ‘I can’t get in. We can’t get in. The gates are shut, there’s no-one there.’ And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, now what?’
“We’ve seen the photos and videos in the media of what was happening and the chaos of it all and you’re thinking, ‘How are they going to get in? How is this possibly going to work?’
“It’s still that process of feeling helpless because it was up to them to get to the airport, it was up to the soldiers to go and find them outside and bring them in, it was up to them to continue with that whole journey.
“They were outside the airport for 36 hours and I was sitting here in Australia in lockdown being like, ‘How is she going to charge her phone? Her phone is going to die, how will she contact us? She’s gonna get lost in the crowds, then what?’ All these sorts of things I was worried about.
“So it was trying not to panic and not bother Moya, but also staying supportive [to her friend].
“I just kept telling her [the Afghanistan footballer], ‘It’s going to be worth it. It’ll be OK. You’ll love it here in Australia’.
“Like, what else can you say to someone when they’re in that moment? It’s hard to even put yourself in their shoes and understand what they’re going through, but to be able to provide that tiny bit of support … that actually means something, you know?”
After almost two days of waiting, her friend – and the rest of the Afghan football group, including the women’s senior national team – made it into Kabul airport. Given the large numbers of people, they were forced to sleep on cardboard boxes outside on the runway, waiting for a flight to Australia. They weren’t clothed appropriately, many were dehydrated and starving. But they were inching ever closer to safety.
Charaktis remembers the moment her friend boarded the Australian Defence Force plane. “I was like, ‘Take some photos if you can. You should document this journey’. She sent me some photos and there’s one of her in front of the RAAF plane they got on, and I was like, ‘This is amazing.’
“To see that after four days of almost hell, not knowing what was going to happen and probably little hope before that, to see her standing in front of the plane, smiling, showing the peace sign … it was amazing.”
When the Afghan footballers landed on Australian soil
Charaktis’ friend was one of over 50 Afghans involved in women’s football who were then splintered off into hotel quarantines across Australia.
But the rescue mission wasn’t over once they arrived: they still needed clothes, toiletries and other items to help them through two weeks of isolation, as well as into the next chapter of their lives.
That’s when Women Onside, a non-profit organisation set up by a group of former Matildas and others in the Australian women’s football community, stepped in.
Having watched the situation unfold in Afghanistan, Women Onside set up an Afghan football support network, which included a fundraiser and volunteer register. At the time of writing, almost 100 people have signed up to help in whatever ways they can.
The support network was led, in part, by Women Onside board director Asma Mirzae, herself a former Afghan refugee. She, like Charaktis, watched on with a sense of total powerlessness as the Taliban re-took control of Afghanistan.
“Just like for any Afghan diaspora, we watched the horror of the events unfolding in Afghanistan from far away,” Mirzae told ABC. “I found myself and my family members watching the news all day long.
“As the situation got worse, day by day, I personally just felt hopeless. I couldn’t do anything.
“It was devastating to feel that we’re so powerless, we’re so helpless; we can’t do anything other than to raise awareness and check on loved ones.
“But when we heard that there was a group of compassionate people here in Australia working behind the scenes to evacuate these girls, that was the moment that got us thinking in terms of what we can do now that they’re here – and that’s how the Afghan Football Support Network started.”
First, the group needed to figure out basic logistics — where the athletes were located, the demographics of each room and what each of them needed. Mirzae’s language skills were key here, she often acted as a translator between the athletes and the volunteers, ensuring communication was as smooth and clear as possible.
“Although there are a few of them who can speak English, the majority of them are struggling,” she said. “That’s where I’ve been able to jump in and bridge that gap, the communication barriers they’re experiencing.
“I’ve been proactively and constantly in touch with the girls. After they found out I speak the language, I’ve been getting numerous messages and calls just seeking some help and support wherever possible. Language has definitely been instrumental in terms of the girls being able to communicate and share their concerns and at the same time, I’ve been able to pass that on to the relevant volunteers to get the support they need.”
Women Onside began putting together care packages
Former Matildas such as Moya Dodd, Jess Mitchell and Kate McShea would shuttle back and forth between Kmart, Officeworks, and Woolworths, delivering bundles of clothes and food to the athletes and their families at their respective quarantine hotels, sometimes well into the night.
Mirzae’s lived experience came in handy here, too. In addition to the care packages, she also helped coordinate the production and delivery of Afghan food to the groups living in post-quarantine accommodation. The comforts of home and seeing a familiar face sometimes making all the difference.
“Last week, I took some time off work because I heard a few stories of them missing Afghan food,” Mirzae said.
“I told my mum about the situation – and Mum was not fully aware of all the work I’m doing behind the scenes because she has her own concerns and is going through difficult times herself reliving the experience she’d gone through – but when I told her that I was supporting these athletes, it didn’t take her too long to prepare some homemade meals and get some Afghan bread for all the girls and their families.
“Over the past few days, I’ve been actively getting other members from the community involved, particularly the Melbourne Afghan Soccer Association (MASA). We started another round of campaigning and we’ve decided to extend that support to the other newly-arrived refugees in that temporary accommodation because when I went there, there were so many more people who needed help.
“MASA have been extremely helpful to complement the work of Women Onside and to support the broader newly arrived Afghans. Members from MASA have delivered over 300 bags of Afghan bread twice a week to the hotel, as well as collecting and arranging donated items like clothing and footwear.
“It didn’t take [the athletes] too long to bombard us with messages saying how thankful and appreciative they are of us for making that effort, although they are just small gestures from our perspective. But they’re very grateful for the fact that we made this effort to bring them food and see them in person.”
Football could act as a safe haven for Afghan athletes as they settle in
As the Afghan group begin to transition into the next stage of their lives with the help of more formal settlement services, the role of Women Onside will shift. Here, Mirzae says, is where football will play a bigger role.
“Football is such a powerful tool that mobilises you and empowers you to be your best self and to reach your fullest potential, so wherever possible, we’ll be using football to make integration much easier for these girls.
“Where Women Onside will complement the [government] support is through the social engagement side of things, with football being one of the drivers. That goes back to my lived experience as well and how much of an impact football had on me as I was on a journey to resettle in Australia.
“The fact that I had my family, my siblings around me definitely made things easier and made me feel that I am at home. But as soon as you step outside of home, that’s when challenges arise. That’s when you start to feel out of your comfort zone and don’t feel like you belong. For me, that’s where football really came into play; it helped me overcome these challenges.
Whether any of the Afghan athletes decide to play football again at all – let alone for their national team – remains a lingering question. Few would blame them if they left the game altogether, having already suffered so much on its behalf.
For Mirzae, though, she sees football as more than just a tool of social integration and individual empowerment. For these newly arrived refugees, the game can act as a political symbol, too.
“How the Taliban is portraying Afghanistan is definitely not the Afghanistan we resonate with,” she said.
“It’s the Afghanistan no-one wants to see or be portrayed like. For us to shift that narrative is through our actions and one action could be through our continued participation in football.
“Continuing to participate in football – whether that might be on a national level or grassroots level – is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our defiance against the Taliban.
For Charaktis – the stone in the lake – this was a moment that not only confirmed the power of football but also the power of a single person to create positive change in the world.
“It’s a classic case of everyone having connections to something or someone,” she said.
“It all comes from football. You can get anything done because everyone can help with something and if they can’t, they’ll know someone who can help.
“Football has literally brought us all together. I would not have met my friend if I wasn’t involved in football, or if she wasn’t involved in football. I wouldn’t have my connections to Allyson Flynn and she wouldn’t have had her connection to Moya. None of this would have happened without football.