Yulduz and Fariba Hashimi: Escaping the Taliban, chasing a dream

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Yulduz Hashimi, Fariba Hashimi and Zehra Rezayee on the podium after the 2022 Afghanistan Women's Road Championship
Yulduz Hashimi (left), Fariba Hashimi (centre) and Afghan teammate Zehra Rezayee on the podium after the 2022 Afghanistan Women’s Road Championship

It was a scorching June afternoon in the middle of a heatwave in Italy. It hasn’t rained in a month. But gray clouds are slowly approaching and the humidity is increasing rapidly. A storm is forming. The kind that only happens once in the summer here.

Two sisters are at the foot of the Dolomites, preparing to start a 10km climbing journey, weaving to the top of a small mountain. Their three teammates and best friends were by their side.

It is a beautiful road. There were very few cars on the way up and a beautiful view over the village of Veneto awaited them as a reward.

They continued. There are 17 winding turns, numbered at each turn. They are elite cyclists – some of the best from their own country. But they weren’t used to cycling around bends, and they certainly weren’t used to riding in the pouring rain.

It was a far cry from the dusty landscape of northern Afghanistan where they came from, which often had scattered roads that were not even suitable for walking.

At the top, they stopped to admire the view of their new home. Fatty raindrops trickled down from their helmets. Time to go. They grinned at each other as they started to descend: “See you at home!”

Gray line shows short

The sisters’ cycling was never easy, even before the Taliban returned.

Fariba and Yulduz Hashimi were born in one of the most remote and conservative provinces in Afghanistan, where women are almost never seen cycling.

In 2017, a local cycling race was held in their local province of Faryab, in the north. The sisters – then 14 and 17 years old – decided to join.

But there is a small problem. They don’t know how to ride a bike.

They borrowed a neighbor’s house to practice one afternoon. After a few hours, they finally understood.

They had to secretly join the race because they didn’t tell their families. They cover their bodies, wear baggy clothes, large headscarves, and sunglasses so people don’t recognize them. They even changed their names.

In the end, they finished first and second. “It feels amazing. I feel like a bird that can fly,” Fariba, now 19, told BBC Sport.

View of a small Afghan city, snow-capped mountains in the distance and blue sky
Faryab province, where the sisters come from, borders Turkmenistan in the north of Afghanistan

They continued, entering as many small races as possible. It becomes more difficult to hide their family because they are constantly winning. Their parents soon found out from photos taken by local media.

“They were very upset at first. They asked me to stop cycling,” said Fariba. “But I don’t give up. I secretly continued,” she laughed.

Their parents warned of the dangers, but in the end they were supportive.

The sisters regularly face harassment. “People were abusive. All I wanted to do was win races,” explained Yulduz, 22.

“There are a lot of threats,” Fariba added. “People tried to hit us with their cars or trailers. They threw rocks at us.”

Even female classmates at school bully them for riding bicycles.

However, soon after, they were noticed and called up to the national team.

“I will never forget that day,” Yulduz said. “I feel on top of the world.”

Their careers went up steadily from there, until the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021.

It changed everything, and immediately put their lives in jeopardy. This hardline Muslim group forbids women from playing any sport. But that’s not all.

Since returning to power, the group has repeatedly persecuted women’s rights and freedoms.

They have banned all girls from going to school, and most recently, out of college – completely cutting off women’s access to education.

They have banned women from most employment sectors – including humanitarian aid organisations.

Women don’t have the freedom to dress the way they want. The Taliban’s code of conduct requires women to cover their bodies, but most women in major cities wear headscarves.

They are not allowed to travel long distances unaccompanied by men, and are prohibited from going to parks and gyms. Without so many rights, many women wondered what was left for them.

A crowd of people wait by the roadside outside Kabul airport, trying to leave the country in August 2021
UN refugee agency estimates 2.6 million Afghans will become refugees in 2021 as Taliban return to power

Fariba and Yulduz – and other female athletes like them – represent an Afghanistan that has made some progress on gender equality in the two decades since the US-led coalition toppled the old regime. . The new version of the country though not the one recognized by the Taliban.

The sisters knew they had to leave if there was any chance of continuing their careers. So they contacted Alessandra Capelloto. The Italian, who won the world road title in 1997, now uses bicycles to help women around the world.

Her charity Road to Equality sponsored a race to be held in Kabul for International Women’s Day in March 2021. It was then that the Hashimi sisters met Cappellotto.

“They’re asking for help. Their lives are in danger. So it’s natural to help them,” Cappellotto said. She called every contact and organization she could think of to get them out; from the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs to the United Nations.

With her influence, Fariba and Yulduz, as well as three of their teammates – Nooria Mohammadi, Zahra Rezayee and Arezo Sarwari – got a seat on a flight from Kabul organized by the Italian government.

Leaving the Kabul airport was a chaotic and unpleasant experience. They have to say goodbye to their families, not knowing when – or if – they will see them again.

“I never thought I would be a refugee. I never imagined that I would have to leave my country,” Fariba said.

Cappellotto took them to a small hilly town in the Veneto region of northern Italy, near where she lived.

Three cyclists at the finish line of a race
Alessandra Cappellotto (far right) became the first Italian woman to win a world road gold medal in 1997

It’s no coincidence that it’s a hugely popular spot with cyclists, with plenty of picturesque cycling routes.

She helped the group settle into their new country, arranging a house for them to live in, part-time work and – most importantly – weekly private Italian lessons.

It’s also important for Alessandra to prepare them with brand new bikes, a professional trainer and a workout schedule.

“Alessandra is an Italian cycling hero,” said Fariba. “She helped us a lot. She was like a mother to us.”

The team has formed a close relationship with their coach, Maurizio. They affectionately called him ‘Capitano’.

A group photo consisting of five cyclists and their bikes
Fariba and Yulduz with coach Maurizio (centre), Alessandra Cappellotto (fifth from left) and teammates

Under his care, the team had to work hard. “We’ve never had a coach in Afghanistan. When I arrived, I felt there was a lot to learn,” Yulduz said. “It was a shock. It was as if I knew nothing about cycling.”

Alessandra explains: “They have a more basic level of cycling technique, yes. “But the truth is that the level of cycling in Europe and Italy is the best in the world.”

It is also a safety issue. They are not used to cycling on roads with cars. They must take a proficient cycling course – usually for children.

They join Italy’s Valcar cycling team, taking part in races around Italy such as the UCI World Gravel Championship in nearby Vicenza – where they finished 33rd and 39th respectively.

In October, they entered their first major race abroad since arriving in Italy. Afghanistan Women’s Road Championship 2022 to be held in Aigle, Switzerland due to the situation in the country.

Two cyclists celebrate at the finish line
The sisters fought thrillingly in the October National Championship

Fariba won the race after an exciting sprint with her sister, to become the new Afghan women’s road champion. After crossing the finish line, the two sisters hugged each other for a long time and had tears in their eyes.

Fariba’s win has secured a contract with the Israel-Premier Tech-Roland team and she will step up to the Women’s WorldTour level – the highest level in road cycling – later this year.

“I did not expect this in my wildest dreams. I will run for all Afghan women!” she told the media afterwards.

Her older sister, Yulduz, who won a silver medal, also earned a spot on the Israel-Premier Tech-Roland Development team. Zahra Rezayee – their friend and roommate – won a bronze medal.

“I’m very happy for them,” said Fazli Ahmad Fazli, president of the Afghanistan Bicycle Federation. “These women are great riders and I’m sure they will win the big races for Afghanistan soon.”

Fifty riders took part in the race, many of whom fled Afghanistan in August 2021. They come from different countries in Europe where they are applying for asylum, as well as Singapore and Canada.

Two sisters have big dreams. They want to be the first cyclists – male or female – to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics.

That won’t be easy – qualifying for the Olympics is highly competitive. And Afghanistan may not be there at all.

In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned the Taliban government that the country could be banned from attending Paris 2024 unless women and young girls are safely allowed to participate in the sport.

If that happens, Afghan refugees could instead have the option of competing on the IOC’s refugee Olympic team – just like the Afghan cyclist. Masomah Ali Zada ​​did at Tokyo 2020.

But Fariba and Yulduz, who have won Olympic scholarships that support their careers financially and technically, want to represent their homeland – and especially the flag of the ousted government.

“I want to raise the flag of Afghanistan,” Yulduz said. “I want my mom and dad to see me and feel proud. It’s going to be the biggest dream ever.”

Alessandra told me: “Cycling is a sport where willpower, desire to work hard and passion play a huge role. And these girls definitely have these.”

Two cyclists holding flags after their victory
Yulduz (left) and Fariba (centre) hold the Italian and Afghan flags after the victory

They are deeply homesick and immediately become emotional when talking about their family. But they are often reminded why they left.

They have received messages on social media from relatives who are members of the Taliban – asking them to cover up pictures they have seen of them racing in international media.

“My friends can’t go to school or leave their homes,” Yulduz said. “I thought, what will happen to me if I stay?”

The past year has been a huge culture shock. But Italy, and the community they have become a part of, welcomed them with open arms. “When the Taliban came, my dream was dying. But Italy gave me another hope,” Yulduz laughed.

It was a brutal decision at such a young age – choosing between home and family, between career and dreams. These sisters are grateful to have each other to share the ups and downs of such a tremendous change.

While the Taliban were in power, returning home as a professional athlete was not an option. Meanwhile, the sisters want to prove to everyone, but most of all to themselves, that the sacrifice leaving everything behind is worth it. And they’re throwing everything they can into cycling to make it happen.


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