23 December 2021

Taekwondo community rallies to support Afghanistan athletes

23 December 2021

The remarkable story of eight taekwondo athletes who fled Afghanistan and gained refuge in Australia would never have occurred had it not been for one man.

Ali Rahimi is no stranger to the dangers and upheavals of life in a war-torn country after fleeing Taliban controlled Afghanistan over ten years ago.

Rahimi is the unsung hero in this uplifting story of a community that has stood together to ensure the safety and support of eight Afghan women and their quest to continue to compete in Taekwondo.

"When the Taliban took over control in Afghanistan, and the previous government collapsed, everybody was worried about the situation, especially for the woman and girls who were active in sport," said Rahimi.

"I was worried about the female Afghan athletes and activists. I wanted to do something about it. I got a phone call from one of the women's national team members asking me for help. She said we are hiding somewhere in Kabul and trying to get out of Afghanistan, but we can't. Can you please help?"

"I said, okay, let me think about it and I'll see what we can do for you."

Rahimi picked up the phone to Australian Taekwondo, and within hours of that call, the rescue mission, a 25-day operation, began.

"I spoke to Heather [Garriock] and explained to her the situation. She said, how can we help them? I said, you know Craig Foster, and he's trying to get the soccer players out. Heather said, okay, let me speak to him. Later on, she called me back and told me to organise the girl's details."

"I was awake all night preparing the documentation. I was talking to the girls all the time, day and night, and Heather was in the same position."

The process of organising official travel documentation was one thing but getting the girls safely across the border was a whole separate ordeal. 

"The girls were in Kabul, and they had to go from Kabul to the Pakistan border. It wasn't safe to travel all the way from Kabul to Kandahar, then Kandahar, to the border. However, they had to go that way, so they went there."

"It was very hard for them to cross the border. The Pakistani officials and the Taliban didn't let them cross the border initially. They got an alert from Australian Officials and then I think the Australian Government contacted the Pakistani officials, and then they wrote a letter for them to cross the border."

"That was one of the hardest times because the girls were at the border, and then the Pakistani officials tried to push them back to Afghanistan, and this side was Taliban. It was a very scary situation, very scary."

The Australian High Commission and their security collected the girls from the border and took them to Islamabad before flying to Darwin, where they quarantine for 14 days, en route to Melbourne. Although delighted by the end result, Rahimi wasn't feeling overly optimistic in the early stages of the operation.

"It wasn't that easy. I really didn't think it was going to be a success. I didn't think the girls were going to come to Australia that quickly and safely."

"That was the main concern for me, the safety for the girls travelling from Kabul to the Pakistan border. Crossing the Pakistani border is not easy for women; it's not a safe thing to do. So that was the main concern, really, for me."

Since arriving in Melbourne, the support from the Victorian Taekwondo and Afghan community has been overwhelming and has made settling into Australian life comfortable and welcoming.

"Since they arrived in Melbourne, I've witnessed the great support from the communities, Taekwondo coaches and Taekwondo players, and the Afghan community. They really, really, have supported them very wisely and widely, with everything, Taekwondo equipment, dinners, and lunches. They've got a house now and they have everything in the house thanks to the community."

"I want to say that I'm proud of some really great people; they've done an amazing job."

While the girls are adjusting to a safer life and more opportunities in Australia, their families remain in Afghanistan; however, Rahimi has since become the legal guardian for Fatima, who is only 16.

"This is the hard and sad part of the story; they have regular contact with the families and speak to their Mums and Dads all the time. Their Mums and Dads worry about them. I spoke to one of them about three weeks ago, and she was very worried about the girls. I told them, look, they are very safe in Australia; don't worry about them."

The group are now focused on training and competing in Taekwondo and plan to compete in various state and national competitions throughout 2022.  

"They had a dream to represent Afghanistan on the international stage, and that dream, unfortunately, was destroyed by the Taliban; it is now their dream to do this for Australia."

"Since they moved here, they've started training at my gym, and now they're training at my club. I'm very happy with what they are trying to achieve and how they are thinking; it is very exciting for everyone. After Christmas, we're going to set up proper training for them on a regular basis."

AUSTKD move to bring athletes fleeing Afghanistan to Australia, 07 September, 2021

Afghanistan Taekwondo athletes set to call Melbourne home, 22 September 2021

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