From Kabul to Wicklow: ‘When we arrived in Ireland, we felt so happy’

Twenty refugee visas granted to young female athletes after lobbying campaign

Two members of Ascend Athletics, who moved from Afghanistan to Co Wicklow after the Taliban took over the country, taking a walk by the sea at Wicklow harbour: ‘I’ve never seen the sea before I came to Ireland.’ Photograph: Jade Wilson

Two members of Ascend Athletics, who moved from Afghanistan to Co Wicklow after the Taliban took over the country, taking a walk by the sea at Wicklow harbour: ‘I’ve never seen the sea before I came to Ireland.’ Photograph: Jade Wilson

 

Before the Taliban captured Kabul and took over Afghanistan last year, a group of Afghan women who met through an athletics programme never imagined they would end up being housed by nuns in an Irish town.

Twenty refugee visas were granted for the group of athletes and their dependants in September following a lobbying campaign by Galway native Anne McNamara and Dublin-based solicitor Andrea Martin.

Speaking over a traditional Afghan lunch in their new home, a 20-year-old woman, who does not wish to be named as she fears for her family’s safety in Afghanistan, said life in Ireland has been good so far.

“People here are so kind to us, and Wicklow is a pretty town,” she said. “But I never imagined I’d leave my country in this way. I sometimes searched online about studying abroad someday, but I didn’t imagine having to escape and come to Ireland.”

The women are all members of Ascend Athletics, a programme that has been developing Afghan girls’ physical fitness and providing community leadership training since 2014. The women’s achievements were the subject of a documentary shown in Europe, and they were deemed vulnerable to Taliban persecution as a result.

“At least we know each other. We learned to work together as a group with Ascend, and now we have learned to live as a group,” the woman said.

‘The day the Taliban took Kabul, I was at university, on my way to maths class. A girl was crying, telling everybody to go home. I’ll never forget it.’ Photograph: Jade Wilson
‘The day the Taliban took Kabul, I was at university, on my way to maths class. A girl was crying, telling everybody to go home. I’ll never forget it.’ Photograph: Jade Wilson

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.

Ten of those who arrived were resettled in Galway, and 10 went to Wicklow, where they were initially housed by Derrybawn Mountain Ecolabs in Glendalough before moving to a building owned by the Dominican Sisters in November.

Every Saturday, the women go on an outing and they have recently started going to a gym and taking swimming lessons.

“I’ve never seen the sea before I came to Ireland, and I’d like to swim in the sea,” another woman told The Irish Times. “We have had a lot of difficulties, but when we arrived in Ireland, we felt so happy.”

‘Everything was taken’

But she misses her studies and wants to finish her bachelor’s in chemistry before doing a master’s degree so she can teach at a university. “I was working so hard, and everything was taken from me so suddenly.”

All of the Ascend women are eager to return to education. Among them are a computer science student who was in her first year of university, a third-year chemistry student, a midwifery student and a recent high-school graduate who was hoping to begin a foundation-year course.

“The day the Taliban took Kabul, I was at university, on my way to maths class. A girl was crying, telling everybody to go home. I’ll never forget it. We couldn’t join maths class after that, and my family kept calling me, telling me to come home right away. I left and never went back,” one woman said.

Ms Martin has set up a community support organisation, Friends of Ascend, to support the Wicklow group during their resettlement in Ireland.

It is a “long-term project”, she said, with an aim of supporting the women’s return to education, into employment and finding their own accommodation. So far, people have offered gym memberships, swimming lessons, clothes and housing support, which Ms Martin said was a “testament to the generosity of Irish people”.

“Without the kindness and support of the Dominican Sisters, none of this would have been possible,” she added.

A team of volunteers have been helping the group, with a focus on improving their English so they can take their studies back up. They go for sunrise walks every morning, have communal breakfast together, and three of the teenage girls have just started school at the Dominican College.

Families left behind

“They’ve had to leave everything behind. They’re extremely worried about their families back home. But they are so strong and they keep as busy and involved as possible,” said Julie, who is one of the volunteers.

Before Christmas the group came up with the idea of making Christmas cards to sell and send money back home. All 750 cards sold out at Dún Laoghaire market, where they hope to have a permanent stall soon.

They are in touch with their families back home, though “not every day, because the internet, like everything, is so expensive there”, one of the women explained.

“It is a really cold winter there now, and they are all at home, so depressed. My little sisters have no hope of starting school or university in the spring.”

She added: “Right now, in Afghanistan, the rich families have a choice to leave. But we are not from rich families. We are worried about our families all the time.

“Of course, we hope the situation in Afghanistan improves. We cannot rescue the whole of Afghanistan, but we have to at least try for our families. It’s all the hope that we have.”