One of Afghanistan’s most promising skiers has been left stranded and “scared” after the Taliban’s takeover of her home country.
In 2020, Afghan skier Nazima Khairzad made her first trip out of her homeland and traveled to Pakistan for an international competition.
She placed third and made history.
“I was the first Afghan, man or woman, to win a medal at an international ski event. It was unbelievable,” she wrote in an essay just published in the Ski Journal.
Now 19, she is back in Pakistan. Only this time, Khairzad is alone, separated from her family, and while she once dreamed of competing in the Olympics, she now faces an uncertain future.
When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August following the US withdrawal, the English speaker was studying computer science in Kabul and leading outdoor adventure tours. Knowing the barbaric regime’s arrival in the capital was imminent, she attempted to escape, first with a failed bid to drive over the border into Pakistan. After that unsuccessful attempt, friend Eva zu Beck, a European travel blogger, was able to get her on a flight to Islamabad in August with a temporary visa.
As a prominent female athlete, the teen knew she’d be a Taliban target, so she took a leap of faith and left everything behind.
“One woman from the national volleyball team has already been killed. Nowadays, even more are committing suicide,” she said.
Kade Krichko, an editor at the Ski Journal who has been in communication with Khairzad, said her visa has now expired. She is living in a hostel and is so stressed that the dental crowns she got following a childhood accident have fallen out.
“Part of the plan was her getting a student visa and studying at a university in Malaysia but the program is still virtual,” Krichko told The New York Post. “She isn’t skiing and is afraid to get help. She is stuck.”
Her 17-year-old sister and fellow competitive skier Nazira, who won the 2021 Afghan Ski Challenge, joined a group of other Afghan skiers who were able to get Italian visas. (Among them are Alishah Farhang and Sajjad Husaini, two male athletes who had been chasing bids to Beijing.) Khairzad worries that their skiing prowess, which enabled the siblings to escape, will put a mark on their family’s back.
“I used to be known for my athletic accomplishments. Now, I’m worried that that attention will get my family in trouble,” said Khairzad, whose parents remained in Afghanistan after they were turned away at the border of Pakistan.
Summit of success
Born in a small town in the snowy, mountainous Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan, the sisters bucked traditional expectations for young girls and took up the sport about five years ago.
“The first days on skis were tough for me. We borrowed the boys’ equipment from Bamyan Ski Club and had a few foreign coaches. We don’t have ski lifts, so we had to hike up the mountain with our skis. In Afghanistan, if you want to be a good skier, you need to be a good hiker…It was crazy though. Just me, Nazira and our friends on top of a mountain. I knew I wanted to continue skiing.”
The next year, they were given real ski clothes and traded in their traditional headscarves for knit caps.
“I liked slalom and hitting jumps. It felt like I was flying,” said Khairzad.
And she was. The siblings’ success on the slopes helped draw record numbers of women to the sport. And Khairzad hoped to open up a ski school for young girls in her hometown.
Dangers at home
But all that changed overnight as the Taliban took over. Khairzad is regularly in touch with her friends and family and is acutely aware of the dangers back home.
“In Bamyan Province, girls are getting married to their relatives because they don’t want to get married with the Taliban. Thirteen, 14 years old. One of my ski friends said she was sad because her family wanted her to marry her cousin, that it would be safer that way.”
Still, she longs for her mother’s cooking and her father’s friendship.
Krichko called Khairzad “incredibly brave.”
“She has this dream of being an Olympian or competitive skier. She wants to go where the snow is, but she is in limbo,” said Krichko, adding that Khairzad took a great risk in speaking out.
“She is scared of retribution but she hopes her story brings awareness to the plight of Afghan athletes and perhaps helps her family escape and one day reunite.”
This article originally appeared on the New York Post and was reproduced with permission
Originally published as Taliban crushes Olympic dreams of female Afghan skier forced to flee home