A refugee, a soccer player, and a woman who pushed for women’s rights: Finding Afghanistan’s hidden heroes

Khalida Popal was a star athlete at Kabul University, making a name for herself as a soccer player — and then as a symbol of hope amid a war — when her country slipped into chaos and her team was suddenly silenced by the Taliban.

Like so many other young people growing up in Afghanistan, Popal found motivation in their war-torn homeland’s independence from their oppressors. She was especially captivated by the example of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan.

“I dreamt of something very big,” Popal recalled. “I didn’t even know what that would be.”

Life got in the way, but Popal continued to look toward the future, opening a Starbucks in Kabul. And while her dreams ultimately unfulfilled, her dream of having a stable, modern country was realized for her at least. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Popal was just 19 years old. She and her teammates fled their homeland. They lived in exile for three years, returning to Kabul after the Taliban had relinquished the country to their Western-style successors. Popal returned to Afghanistan as well, attending Pashto language classes at American University, and enduring what she says were her most difficult years.

During this time, Popal earned a master’s degree in journalism and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

“A while ago, I’m very impressed and moved by American sport,” Popal told me in a phone interview. “I don’t see how American sports have provided the solution for Afghanistan. Maybe the answer is sports.”

That point was driven home for Popal this year when she watched the men’s World Cup from Afghanistan, which was not part of the tournament broadcast on television. Popal told her English-speaking husband of the host country. He explained that the telecast was an excuse for the Taliban to ban the games in Afghan cities. Popal, who is a Pashto speaker, was astounded.

“It’s a story of a young person who has bravely stood up for freedom. That’s what it was about.”

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