On a slope in the Dolomites, two sisters are about to start a 10 km ascent that zigzags to the top of a small mountain. Next to them are three of her teammates and best friends.
It is a beautiful route. There are few cars on the road and the impressive view over a Veneto village awaits them as a reward.
There are 17 twisty turns, numbered at each turn. They are elite cyclists, some of the best in their country. But they are not used to pedaling in curves, and certainly not to riding a bike in the pouring rain.
It is far from the dusty northern Afghan landscape from which they come, where the stony paths are often not even fit for walking.
At the top they stop to admire the view of their new home. Big drops of rain fall from their helmets. It’s time to go. They smile at each other as they start the descent: “See you at home!”
For the sisters, riding a bike was never easy, even before the Taliban’s return to power.
Fariba and Yulduz Hashimi were born in one of Afghanistan’s most remote and conservative provinces, where a woman on a bicycle had hardly ever been seen before.
In 2017, however, a cycling race was organized in the northern province of Faryab, and the sisters, then aged 14 and 17, decided they wanted to participate.
But there was a small problem: they did not know how to ride a bicycle.
They borrowed one from a neighbor to practice one afternoon. After a few hours, he finally got the hang of it.
They had to secretly participate in the race because they had not told their family. They covered up, wearing big, baggy clothes, large headscarves and sunglasses so people wouldn’t recognize them. They even changed their names.
They finished first and second. “It was incredible. I felt like a bird that could fly,” Fariba, now 19, told BBC Sport.
They continued to enter as many races as they could. But it was getting harder and harder to hide it from his family because they kept winning. His parents soon found out from photos taken by local media.
“At first they were upset. They asked me to put the bike down,” says Fariba. “But I didn’t give up. I continued in secret,” she smiles.
Their parents warned them against the dangers involved, but ultimately supported them.
The sisters were frequently harassed. “People were aggressive, but all I wanted to do was win races,” explains Yulduz, 22.
“There were a lot of threats,” Fariba adds. “People tried to run us over with their cars or motorcycles. They threw stones at us.”
Even their classmates at school bullied them for riding their bikes.
However, they soon became noticed and were called up for the national team.
“I will never forget that day,” Yulduz recalls. “I felt on top of the world.”
Their careers took off from then until the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021.
This changed everything and immediately put their lives in danger.
The Islamist group prohibits women from practicing any sport. But that is not all. Since it returned to power, the group has curtailed the rights and freedoms of women. They have banned girls from going to school and, more recently, from attending university, cutting off women’s access to education altogether.
They have also barred women from most jobs, including humanitarian aid organizations.
Women no longer have the freedom to dress however they want. The Taliban’s code of conduct says women must cover themselves fully, but most women in big cities only wear headscarves.
They are not allowed to travel long distances without a male escort and have been banned from going to parks and gyms. Without all those rights, many women wonder what is left for them.
Fariba and Yulduz, as well as other athletes like them, represented an Afghanistan that had made some progress toward gender equality in the two decades since the US-led coalition overthrew the old regime. However, that new version of the country was not recognized by the Taliban.
The sisters knew they had to leave if they were to have any chance of continuing their careers. In this way, they contacted the Italian Alessandra Cappellotto, winner of a world road title in 1997 and who now uses cycling to help women around the world.
Her charity, Road to Equality, had sponsored a run in Kabul for International Women’s Day 2021, where the Hashimi sisters were able to meet her.
“They asked for help. Their lives were in danger. So it was natural to help them,” says Cappellotto, who then called all the contacts and organizations that occurred to him to get them out of there, from the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs to the United Nations.
Thanks to his influence, Fariba and Yulduz, as well as three of their teammates – Nooria Mohammadi, Zahra Rezayee and Arezo Sarwari – got a place on a flight from Kabul organized by the Italian government.
Leaving the Kabul airport was a chaotic and disturbing experience. They had to say goodbye to their relatives, not knowing when or if they would ever see them again.
“I never thought that I would become a refugee. I never imagined that I would have to leave my country,” Fariba confesses.
Cappellotto took them to a small mountainous town in the Veneto region of northern Italy, close to where she lives.
It is no coincidence that it is a very popular place among cyclists, with countless picturesque routes for biking.
The ex-cyclist helped the group settle in their new country, organizing a house for them to live in, part-time jobs and, most importantly, weekly Italian classes.
Alessandra also got them new bikes, a professional trainer and a training program.
“Alessandra is a hero of Italian cycling,” says Fariba. “She has helped us a lot. She is like a mother to us.”
The group has formed a close bond with their coach, Maurizio. They affectionately call him the ‘Capitano’ (captain).
Under his tutelage, the team has had to work hard. “We never had a coach in Afghanistan. When I arrived, I felt like there was a lot to learn,” says Yulduz. “It was a shock. It was like I didn’t know anything about cycling.”
“They had a more basic technical level, yes,” explains Alessandra. “But it is true that the level of cycling in Europe and Italy is the best in the world.”
It was also a security issue. They were not used to cycling on roads with cars. They had to do a cycling competition course, like the one that children usually do.
They joined the Italian cycling team Valcar, taking part in races in Italy, such as the International Cycling Union (UCI) Gravel World Championships, in nearby Vicenza, where they placed 33rd and 39th.
In October they participated in their first big race abroad since they arrived in Italy. The 2022 Afghanistan Women’s Road Cycling Championships was held in Aigle, Switzerland, due to the situation in the country.
Fariba won the race after a thrilling sprint against her sister, to become the new Afghan road cycling champion. After crossing the finish line, the sisters embraced in a long, teary hug.
Fariba’s victory secured her a contract with the Israel Premier Tech Roland team and she is set to move up to the Women’s UCI WorldTour level, the highest level of road cycling, later this year.
“I didn’t expect this in my wildest dreams. I will run for all Afghan women!” Fariba told the media after her victory.
His older sister, Yulduz, who took silver, also earned a place on the Israel-Premier Tech-Roland development team. Zahra Rezayee, her friend and her roommate, clinched the bronze.
“I am very happy for them,” acknowledged Fazli Ahmad Fazli, president of the Afghan Cycling Federation. “These women are amazing riders and I’m sure they will win big races for Afghanistan soon.”
Fifty cyclists participated in the race, many of whom fled Afghanistan in August 2021. They came from different countries in Europe where they applied for asylum, as well as from Singapore and Canada.
The sisters have big dreams. They want to become the first female or male cyclist in history to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic Games.
It won’t be easy: qualifying for the Olympic Games is very competitive. And Afghanistan may not even participate.
In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned the Taliban government that the country could be excluded from Paris 2024 if women and girls are not allowed safe access to sport.
If that happens, Afghan refugees could have the option to compete under the IOC refugee Olympic team, as Afghan cyclist Masomah Ali Zada did at Tokyo 2020.
But Fariba and Yulduz, who have won Olympic scholarships that provide financial and technical support for their careers, want to represent their homeland, and specifically the banner of the government ousted by the Taliban.
Passion and effort
“I want to raise the flag of Afghanistan,” says Yulduz. “I want my father and mother to see me and be proud. That would be the biggest dream of all.”
“Cycling is a sport where willpower, the desire to work hard and passion count for a lot. And these girls have it,” says Alessandra.
The sisters are desperately homesick and emotional when they talk about their family. Yet too often they are reminded of why they left.
They have received messages on social networks from relatives who are members of the Taliban, telling them to cover themselves in the photos they have seen of them in international media.
“My friends can’t go to school or leave their houses,” says Yulduz. “I think, what would have become of me if I had stayed?”
Last year was a big culture shock for them. But Italy and the community of which they have become a part have welcomed them with open arms. “When the Taliban arrived, my dream had started to die. But Italy gave me another hope,” says Yulduz.
It is a brutal decision that they have had to make very young: choosing between their country and their family, and their career and their dreams. But the sisters are grateful to have each other to share the ups and downs of such a complicated change.
As long as the Taliban are in power, returning home as professional athletes is not an option. Meanwhile, the sisters want to prove to everyone, but especially to themselves, that the sacrifice of leaving everything behind was worth it.
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BBC-NEWS-SRC: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-64890637, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-03-11 03:40:06
BBC World Service
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