TORONTO – In a small town high school classroom just outside of Toronto, teacher Farkhunda Mutaj waits for a group of girls to join a Zoom call in the late afternoon .
They are not students and they are over five thousand kilometers away.
They are football players, and they are just a few days into a new life filled with more possibilities than they could ever have imagined.
It all started over a month ago.
With the Taliban regaining control of much of Afghanistan, plans have been made to help a group of young footballers leave the country. They feared what the future would be for female athletes and activists under Taliban control.
One of the people approached to help get them out was the captain of the Afghan National Women’s Soccer Team, now a teacher in Newcastle, Ont.
“They were in a situation they never wanted to be,” Muhtaj told CTV News Toronto. “No one wanted to be forced to leave their country.”
Dubbed “Operation Soccer Balls,” a team of people from around the world, including U.S. officials, nonprofits and members of the international soccer community, worked behind the scenes for more than a month in an attempt to ” get the 26 youth team members and their families out of Afghanistan.
Muhtaj was the one who spoke directly with the girls.
“These girls had to believe me blindly. They had to trust me 100%, and they had to understand that what I was saying was in good faith, from our whole team.”
For operational security reasons, the plans were kept secret, even from the girls themselves.
“I couldn’t share the details with them. Sometimes they didn’t understand why they were leaving and what the mission was and they had to believe us blindly. They had to trust us.”
For several weeks, the girls and their families, 80 people in total, were moved from refuge to refuge in Afghanistan.
Many feared suicide bombers and failed rescue missions.
Muhtaj, who is also a former player and now a York University coach, oversaw the mission from her home in the GTA.
“You know it was scary, I’ll be honest with you,” Muhtaj said. “These girls had every confidence in me, every confidence in our team that we are working, and we really did. We were working 24/7 looking at all viable options.”
Planning began before the expiration of the August 31 deadline for safely leaving Afghanistan. But the team couldn’t get the girls out on time.
“They were upset emotionally, physically and mentally, you know their mental state was deteriorating and I applaud them through a very difficult time, through those dark times where they were able to stay determined.”
This determination paid off. Even though the deadline passed, planning continued, and early last Sunday the team learned they could leave the country on a chartered plane to Portugal.
“They have experienced all the expanses of what you can see in life that is both negative and positive during this short period of time.”
Now the young players and their families are moving to their new home in Portugal, where the government has granted them asylum.
Speaking to CTV News via Zoom, several of the players talk enthusiastically about exploring their new surroundings and getting to know their new country.
“We really have special respect for them,” player Sadaf Rezaei told CTV News Toronto of her new compatriots. “Moreover, we want to continue football here – and also our life here.”
Muhtaj says she is thrilled to see young women growing up, both on and off the football field.
“They’re talking about how they’re going to stand up for other women and women – how they’re going to be educated and provide, you know, be a good role model for other Afghan refugees. So it’s fantastic the work they’re doing.” already and they deserve it so much. “