“The word 'leaving' is not as easily done as it is written, it is full of pain, sorrow and endless days of confusion. Leaving is always hard.” – Mubaraka, November 2021
Over the eight years we’ve been funding Skateistan’s mission to educate young people around the world through skateboarding, a lot has changed. Immense growth, thousands of smiling faces, and even an Oscar-winning documentary. But no change has been so dramatic as the one that took place in August 2021, when Taliban forces seized control of Afghanistan once again. The Taliban is making the future of woman in Afghanistan uncertain.
In the face of this change, Skateistan now offers support to its communities in new ways, supporting its staff who have left the country to start new lives abroad. We at THE SKATEROOM, are proud to have been able to help guide three young women from the organization as they arrived in our home-city of Brussels. We’ve become friends with Mubaraka, Zahra and Maryam, who were forced to leave their homes, families and jobs at Skateistan’s new-skate school in Bamyan in the summer. Since then, we’ve heard many stories of the past and dreams for the future. They explained to us that one day they would like to tell the world too. And we said that when that day comes, we would be happy to help them do it.
A few weeks ago the three of them came to our offices in Brussels, ready to do just that.
How to begin?
With three very distinct, yet unified, tales to tell – each one deeply beautiful and bitterly challenging in its own right – it was difficult to know where to begin. We decided to ask outright: “Coming here today, what do you hope that people will take away from your piece?” Difficult question even for the most innocuous of stories, but it isn’t long before Mubaraka, Maryam and Zahra collectively meet at an idea. “Understanding.” They want people to understand where they come from; to understand what Afghanistan is like really, away from the shadow of war; to understand their dreams and realities as refugees; and (perhaps most saddening for us to hear) to understand that they are not here to steal work from people, but to pass on their knowledge and help those less fortunate than themselves.
While exploring this idea, it isn’t long before we get onto the subject of their immense achievements. The three of them light up and take it in turns to reel off. As the list grows, their respective outlooks rise to the surface – each unique in its own way, sculpted by what they’ve experienced.
Mubaraka is, among other things, a runner, a soccer player, a skateboarder, a photographer and a hiker. But she prefers to call herself simply “an adventurer”. ‘I like to experience everything. Every new culture, every new place – and I’m really passionate about taking photographs to tell those stories.’ explains Mubaraka. ‘But I’m also interested in telling the stories of my people, stories which nobody has ever heard before. These are not stories about war, but new stories, from a strong and independent Afghanistan. About a new generation. It is my duty to share these amazing stories with the world.’
Penned by Mubaraka upon coming to Belgium
August 15th, 2021. It was a day like the days before. Everything was fine, we were all living in peace, at least in Bamyan. Children were going to school, the people were all busy with their daily chores, and as the weather was getting cold, the athletes gradually began to prepare for winter sports.
But all hopes were dashed in one night. When we woke up on the morning of August 15, the Taliban had reached us. Everything happened all of a sudden. People were trying to escape from the center of Bamyan, many people could not even find a way out.
It was hard for me to believe that the fate of thousands of people could change in one day. It’s hard for me to believe now, even though months have passed since that tragedy. Why should it be like this? Why should you be killed because you are a woman, an athlete and an activist? Is this really a crime? Which law says that a girl who does sports should be killed?
Maryam was the first member of the Bamyan handball team when the sport came to the city and played in international competitions. Before joining Skateistan, she worked with the AKDN organization that teaches vocation training for the economically challenged, like bee-keeping skills. She went on to teach this skill to women in the city so that they could find work and support their families.
She explains how proud she was to be a role-model for these women. ‘In my family, I am the only woman to go to school, finish higher education and work in international organizations.’ she says. ‘For me, education is what allows us to succeed in life.’
Penned by Maryam upon coming to Belgium
I am a young Afghan woman. I was born in Iran and went back to Afghanistan when I was 10. In August, after the Taliban took control, I had to urgently leave Afghanistan. I got a place on the last flight to Brussels. I have since been living in refugee centres, and am currently in Sint-Truiden and have even joined their handball team.
I loved my homeland and I had very high expectations for my beloved country. These hopes suddenly vanished when the Taliban took control. Today, I received my refugee status in Belgium and I am ready to start a new life here. I want to flourish in the name of my country by excelling in handball and playing all around the world. No matter how hard the past is, we can always begin again – for a better future.
Zahra lingers a little over her achievements, unsure. She sees things differently. ‘I was unable to finish my Masters Degree, I wasn’t able to properly take up the sport I loved [Zahra is a keen cyclist]. But I have always been able to help others in my life.’ In 2019, Zahra was nominated for an In-Peace award by Skateistan which celebrated her commitment to others.
‘I would go to the children’s homes to talk to their parents, persuade them to let their children – their daughters – come to Skateistan. I would speak with my heart.’ For Zahra, it was important that these families understood what they could give their kids the opportunities she hadn’t had. ‘Some achievements are tangible, some are not.’ explains Zahra. ‘But it’s the ones you can’t touch which make the most impact. We all saw this in our work at Skateistan.’
Penned by Zahra upon coming to Belgium
I am a young Afghan woman, I was born as a refugee in Iran and came back to my motherland when I was 11. I had a satisfying life in Afghanistan and was dreaming of a better future for my country. Then the page turned, and I missed the remaining lines of the book. All of a sudden, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and I had to leave the country. As a young, educated and employed woman, I was particularly in danger.
In the midst of the chaos, I got a spot on the last flight flying to Belgium and had to leave my family behind. Very luckily, I have recently been recognised as a refugee in Belgium and am thus excited to start a new life here, starting by finding a job and a place to call home.
Growing up in Afghanistan (If You’re a Girl)
All three – Mubaraka, Maryam and Zahra – were born in Iran, to families who had fled the previous Taliban occupation which ended in 2001. Refugees in Iran weren’t able to access education like nationals were. ‘I studied illegally in Iran, in the schools established by Afghans. I started school when I was six, skipped two grades in primary school and finished high school very young.’ Zahra recalls this with an almost mischievous look on her face. ‘I would dress like a boy and cycle around without the veil. But when I came back to Afghanistan again, I had to dress like a girl, I couldn’t do sports and I had to fight for my education.’
Zahra’s family wasn’t intensely strict, but she wasn’t ‘free’. ‘They allowed me to go to school, and my two brothers, who struggled to feed our family, put me through my education. But when I wanted to go to university, a lot of people – including them – were saying I shouldn’t go. No woman in my family had done that before.’ When we ask what made her push through that pressure from those around her, Zahra is firm: ‘I didn’t care if the others couldn’t dream big like me. I was going to do it even if it was very difficult. I cannot forget those days. But once I’d done it, I saw other women from my family start university too.’
Like Zahra, Maryam was the first member of her family to attend university, getting her Economics degree in 2021. ‘Many of my classmates at school were from rich backgrounds. I knew that I was different, and I wouldn’t be able to reach my dreams like them. But then I got a place to study at Bamyan University. I moved there and lived with my uncle. My family couldn’t follow me, they decided it would be better to go back to Iran.’
Meanwhile, Mubaraka was “adventuring”. Her family were much more open-minded around what she could do as a girl. ‘I was running in competitions. When I got first place in a running competition, they put me in the news.’ It wasn’t long before people started to take notice of her achievements. ‘I did a workshop, and in that workshop I met Zainab, who was working at Skateistan.’ Mubaraka remembers Zainab’s voice clearly. ‘Hey girl, I know you! I saw your picture on TV. Want to try skateboarding?’
‘It was a very strange feeling. Like a bird flying around in the sky.’ she says, smiling. ‘I was scared of falling. I did fall. But I couldn’t help getting up again. In life, when you’re disappointed, when you feel like you want to give up, you have a choice. Skateboarding teaches you that.’
Mubaraka had never imagined she would become a skater, but she went along with Zainab to see the construction of the Skateistan Mazar ramps and was blown away. At 17 years old, Mubaraka joined Skateistan as a student. A few months later, she volunteered there; and in 2014, she became staff. She moved to Skateistan’s new Bamyan location in 2020 to start her position as Programs Officer.
United in Bamyan
Bamyan is a beautiful place. In the surrounding villages, people eat the food they grow. In the city, you’re surrounded by mountains. The highest peak, Baba (Shah Foladi) is 5,142m high (that’s higher than Mont Blanc). With her new role at Skateistan fuelling her independence, these new surroundings only ignited Mubaraka’s desire to explore more. ‘I climbed to the top of Baba with seven athletes from Afghanistan. We weren’t professionals, we just did it.’
The organizations Maryam was working with before Skateistan weren’t involved in sports, but in March 2021, when Skateistan announced that it was looking for somebody to join them in Bamyan, she saw an opportunity. Maryam: ‘When I was at school in Nimroz, I had to wear a veil. But in Bamyan I was able to walk and communicate freely. I could travel. And I could do sports. There were ski festivals, cycling competitions. Many people would come from other provinces to see the opportunities in Bamyan.’
Zahra came to Mazar to study, and it was during this time that she seized the opportunity to follow her love of cycling. ‘I had to work, and because Skateistan is an international organization, it gave me a place I could do these activities privately. I suggested we start a cycling class for the girls at Skateistan.’ Alongside an amazing team which included Mubaraka and Maryam, Skateistan’s programs were growing rapidly.
‘I wanted to do handball and basketball classes for girls who had never played before.’ It was Maryam’s goal to give young women at Skateistan the same passion for sport that she has. ‘Day by day, I got closer to that goal. Now I must start again, in Brussels.’
How to begin (again)?
August 2021 – Bamyan’s skate school was forced to close its doors. Life in Afghanistan changed overnight; Zahra, Maryam and Mubaraka were forced to flee. Unsure if they would find a plane to take them away from the Taliban’s campaign, they found themselves together at the airport in Pakistan. Just minutes before the last flight left, they were able to board a flight to Brussels, leaving the country and flying to safety. Skateistan contacted us just days later, asking if we would assist them in finding shelter and beginning the long, arduous process of asylum in Brussels. Of course, we would.
Nearly six months later, they are still in an uncertain situation – but two of their “refugee” states have been approved. ‘We are “processing”.’ says Mubaraka. ‘We know that it’ll take five to ten years to get Belgian citizenship. But we are strong – we have made goals for ourselves.’ For the “adventurer”, photography and travel are top of her list. ‘I have plans to travel again. And until I can do that, I want to follow my photography. I want to connect with local photographers and hold exhibitions here. I want to connect with my friends who left Afghanistan to other countries, who are also photographers, and work together to tell stories about our home that aren’t just about war.’
‘You know, I had a good life in Bamyan.’ says Maryam. ‘I finished my education. I worked and I supported my family – we were building a house. All of those things are gone. But I hope that here, in Belgium, I can reach for those dreams again. Maryam has already joined the local handball team. ‘I am the only immigrant, but they’ve welcomed me in. I’m learning from their skills. But I also want to teach others.’ Amid the struggles of settling anew in Belgium, she has already volunteered to teach children her favorite sport. ‘I want to help others pursue their dreams’, she says simply. ‘And I’m hoping that my degree will be accepted in Belgium, but if not then I will start to study again – from zero.’
‘I know that my Masters might not be recognized here.’ says Zahra, picking up on the subject of education. ‘It feels like my life has been destroyed. But what makes me stand tall is the thought that I am living in a more open community. I can wear what I want, I can cycle around, and I can have a career.’ Like Maryam, Zahra will start to run her own classes for refugees – helping them with translation and sports. ‘If I can’t help financially, I can help in other ways.’
It feels, for a moment, as if Zahra has led our conversation to its neat close. The question of how we can all help others, whether financially or not, is one we can all think about. Perhaps that ‘Understanding’ we were talking about earlier is best epitomized by understanding our own impact on the world and on each other.
But then Mubaraka chimes in. ‘And I want to continue running marathons. When you run a marathon you challenge yourself. Mentally you are in a fight with your own body. Your body says “you can’t do this” but your mind says “yes, you can, you can.”’ And we remember that long list of accomplishments that the three of them had ready when we began our conversation. A list which is still growing by the day.
Mubaraka has a quote. “When somebody inspires you, it impacts every aspect of your life.” This is her mantra. She actually used it in her Skateistan job interview years ago. ‘And it’s true’, she says. ‘We have inspired each other along this journey, even though we haven’t always been together.’
So perhaps Understanding isn’t all we can take away from the stories of these incredible women. Perhaps, Inspiration – to stand tall, to achieve our goals, to aid others to achieve theirs, and to help wherever we can – is the lesson instead.
Can you support Mubaraka, Zahra and Maryam, in any way?
Please contact Clara Bardiau at firstname.lastname@example.org