Call for Ireland to give up to 20 female Afghan athletes refuge

The women are vulnerable to persecution by because of their achievements

Two Irish women are lobbying for the State to give safe haven and refugee visas to a group of young female athletes from Afghanistan who are at risk of persecution by the Taliban.

Galway native Anne McNamara and Dublin-based solicitor, Andrea Martin are leading efforts to secure refugee status for up to 20 women who are part of a group called Ascend Athletics, which has been developing Afghan girls' physical fitness and community leadership training since 2014.

Participants on the programme undertake two years of training that develops their physical strength, confidence, leadership skills and community engagement. The women's achievements have been the subject of a documentary shown in Europe and they are now vulnerable to Taliban persecution as a result.

Fearing forced marriage to Taliban fighters, some have already fled in the hope of making a land-border crossing, as leaving Kabul by air has become more difficult. Two families will settle in Denmark, a statement from Ascend confirmed, while "nothing is certain" for the others.


Ms Martin and Ms McNamara are lobbying for Ireland to accept "as many of the young Afghan women as possible."

The women have received a list of 20 names of young people associated with Ascend Athletics who urgently need safe refuge overseas, including nine young women who are programme participants and the baby of one of them, as well as five graduates of the programme and their husbands.

Andrea Martin attended a screening of the documentary about the achievements of the women involved with Ascend in Berlin two years ago, followed by a live Skype conversation with one of the women.

The experience was “very moving” and “brought tears to my eyes,” Ms Martin told The Irish Times. Ever since then, she has followed and financially supported the group.

“The updates coming from Kabul since the Taliban took over were heart-breaking. I sent money to support the evacuation effort but I kept thinking, ‘I wish there was more I could do’”. She immediately began contacting politicians to seek their support in getting refugee status for the women.

Similarly, Galway woman Ms McNamara began by contacting her local Fine Gael TD, Ciaran Cannon. Shortly afterwards the two women were put in touch by the Ascend Athletics team.

‘Wringing my hands’

“I stood by wringing my hands about the Syrian refugee crisis and did nothing. I wasn’t about to do it a second time with Afghanistan,” Ms McNamara said.

Now based in the USA, Ms McNamara researched NGOs empowering women in Afghanistan and was impressed with the work that Ascend Athletics did.

“I connected with them with the offer of building an Irish/USA coalition of financial and logistical support and it went from there,” she said.

While every Afghani trying to escape from the Taliban “deserves help and support,” Ms Martin said, these young women were “particular targets for the Taliban, having publicly demonstrated what women can achieve way beyond the norms of what is normally accepted in Afghani society.”

Some of the women are also more vulnerable because they are Hazaras, part of the country's Shia minority, which is highly persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. The ethnic group faced intense persecution during Afghanistan's previous rule by the Taliban.

“They’ve been shining lights to show what women can do, and that means they’re at particular risk. Any country that supports the principle of empowering women has a moral duty to support and nurture these young women who have already been role models for women’s empowerment in their country, against unbelievable odds,” Ms Martin said.