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Afghan sportswomen ‘terrified’ and fearing for their lives, says country’s first female Olympian

By Ben Church, CNN

Afghanistan’s first female Olympian, Friba Rezayee, says she is “very angry” that her country’s plight is “falling off the world agenda” as she continues to help those still trying to escape.

Rezayee was one of many to oppose the Taliban takeover of the country in August and says those still left in the country are being forgotten.

The former judoka, who competed at the 2004 Olympic Games, says she is in regular contact with over 100 female Afghan athletes — including members of the judo and volleyball team — and says some women are still in hiding over fears they will receive punishment from the new regime after fighting for equality over the last two decades.

“The female athletes’ lives are in extreme danger and they’re in hiding,” Rezayee told CNN Sport, adding that she was told armed Taliban fighters had already visited the dojo where the women used to train.

“They are not only in hiding, they are changing their locations and their addresses every two or three weeks because the Taliban can find them and they don’t want to be captured or caught and to be punished.”

The pictures of people falling to their deaths as they hung on to planes leaving Kabul airport shocked the world back in August — a tragic and very visible embodiment of how desperate people were to flee the Taliban.

The group’s regime has since been placed under immense pressure to support the rights of women by the international community and professed to have changed since their previous rule.

However, in their four months of recent rule, the new Taliban leaders have imposed limits on girls’ education and stripped away rights they had fought tirelessly for over the last 20 years.

READ: Safe and alive, but ‘traumatized,’ the future of these Afghan footballers is uncertain

‘Textbook example of a humanitarian crisis’

The so-called “decree on women’s rights” that was released earlier this month failed to even mention access to education or work.

The decree, which sets out the rules governing marriage and property for women, states that women should not be forced into marriage and that widows have a share in their husbands property.

“A woman is not a property, but a noble and free human being; no one can give her to anyone in exchange for peace…or to end animosity,” said the Taliban decree, released by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

“I don’t believe that the Taliban has changed,” Rezayee added, saying she was “heartbroken” when the takeover happened earlier this year.

“[Girls] schools are still shut. Athletes are still at home in hiding. Everybody is terrified to even speak or post something on social media.

“Afghanistan felt like it was hit by a giant meteoroid. Afghanistan is suffering greatly and this is the textbook example of a humanitarian crisis.

“We cannot ignore such a big disaster in the world. We need to keep Afghanistan in our heart and on our agenda.”

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Rezayee moved to Canada as a refugee in 2011.

She said fundamentalists in Afghanistan “wanted her dead” due to her participation in sport and she feared for the safety of both her and her family on her return from the Olympic Games.

As a result, she went into hiding for a few months and then, after a family tragedy in 2005, she fled to Pakistan before finally seeking refuge in Canada.

She has since set up a non-profit organization, ‘Women Leaders of Tomorrow,’ which advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In November, she wrote open letters to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Sean Fraser, minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, urging her adopted country to help those sportswomen fearing for their lives.

She is aware work is being done but says it’s not happening quickly enough.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which has not responded to Rezayee’s letter to Fraser, says it is committed to helping up to 40,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans settle in Canada through multiple initiatives.

Last week, Fraser said a plane carrying 184 Afghan refugees landed in the country, but Rezayee is worried that the most vulnerable are not being helped quick enough by the international community.

“Canada was the first country in the world to launch a humanitarian resettlement program for Afghan refugees, which remains one of the most ambitious of any country,” said IRCC spokesperson Alexander Cohen in a statement to CNN.

“Through the pathways that we’ve implemented, referral partners have begun referring vulnerable persons — including Afghan women at risk — under our humanitarian resettlement program.

“They’re being processed as Government Assisted Refugees, and we continue to explore further possibilities as we increase our commitment from 20 to 40,000 refugees.

“Unfortunately we cannot give details about specific cases due to privacy and security reasons.”

It added: “As requests to support persecuted groups have increased dramatically since the fall of Kabul, Canada is working hard to assist as many vulnerable people as possible.

“We have now welcomed nearly 6,000 Afghan refugees and approved applications for roughly 12,000 others.”

‘Now is the time’

Earlier this year, reality star Kim Kardashian and Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani helped fly 130 Afghan women soccer players and their families from Pakistan to Britain.

Former Afghanistan football captain Khalida Popal, who signed Rezayee’s open letters, has also spearheaded evacuation efforts for other female athletes from Afghanistan following the country’s Taliban takeover in August.

Rezayee is worried that lesser-known sports, such as her beloved martial arts, are not getting the same support from big sponsors and organizations.

She urged governments around the world, as well as celebrities, to help fund the efforts to get visas for the women she is speaking to.

“Given the risk and the principles of Taliban and women’s sports, they’re equally qualified to be evacuated, and they’re equally at risk,” she said.

“You have the power and the funding to help us if you want to reach out. Now is the time.”

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