The Afghanistan Withdrawal

These Girls Represented A New Hope For Afghanistan. Now They Are ‘Left To The Wolves’

For the past six years, the American NGO Ascend has helped Afghani girls train to become mountain climbers. To many, they represented a new hope for women in Afghanistan. Now the NGO is working desperately to help them escape the Taliban.

Courtesy of Ascend

For the past six years, the American NGO Ascend has helped Afghani girls train to become mountain climbers.

These girls defied societal norms and expectations to climb some of the country's highest mountain peaks.

"We've had girls coming through every year learning to be leaders through athletics, specifically mountain climbing. They're also very involved in their communities. They're outspoken women's rights activists," said Marina LeGree, the founder and executive director of Ascend. "They represented a whole new face — a whole new hope for Afghanistan — and now they are left to the wolves."

As U.S. forces struggle to evacuate vulnerable residents of Afghanistan, the Taliban is going door to door in neighborhoods of the capitol Kabul looking for people who have connections to the U.S. government or American NGO's operating in the country.

"People are so afraid they don't go out of their houses," said Habiba, a 17-year old Ascend mountain climber. "They’re checking all the houses. They’re checking for documents or anything that shows you've been working with an organization. And always the girls — they look for the young girls."

Habiba spoke to TPR from her home in Kabul. We're only using her first name out of concerns for her safety.

"I'm really afraid. I have nightmares about it — that the Taliban comes,” she said. "What should we do? This is so stressful."

The last time the Taliban was in power, girls couldn’t attend school and women could only be seen in public with a male escort and their bodies fully covered. Punishment for disobeying these strict rules ranged from public beatings to executions.

Habiba has violated almost all of those rules with mountain climbing. She’s had to eliminate her social media presence and any documentation that could give her away to the Taliban.

She and her family are holed up in their house waiting for a way out.

"You know it is really hard for me to accept," she said. "I have achieved for many years and I have tried hard and the only choice we have is to move to another place."

But getting visas on such short notice as the country collapsed over the past week has been difficult.

Marina LeGree said the U.S. isn't granting visas fast enough to get Habiba and more than 75 girls, 20 staff members and a number of Ascend alumni in a similar situation out of harm’s way.

"Its extremely slow. It's so slow that we, as an American organization, don't have anyone going through the U.S.," she said. "We're looking to Denarmk, Norway, Canada, and other countries to take our girls because the U.S. process is so inaccessible and just too slow."

LeGree has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to protect everyone involved in Ascend as she urges people to write to their local members of Congress for help.

"There's a way to get out of this. We need to give our U.S. military a different mandate, a broader mandate in Kabul," she said. "Secure the airport. Process visas quickly. We need to get people on planes quickly."

There are so many people trying to get out and its been very confusing to see who is actually operating planes that can take them out, said Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a former NPR International Correspondent and Kabul Bureau Chief.

"The American military is controlling Kabul Airport right now and they are having difficulty keeping the tarmac clear for planes to take off," she said.

Sarhaddi Nelson is now based in Berlin. She reached out to the German government to get the girls and women added to a list of vulnerable Afghans who need to be flown out immediately.

She started reporting on the Ascend mountain climbers for NPR in 2015 and is currently writing a book on the girls. She said she's lucky to still be able to connect with them over the internet.

"For those of us who have been in contact with these girls and are are trying to help them, we’ve actually been very conscientious about changing our Facebook settings — our social media settings — so the Taliban can’t troll for them because this is a real issue right now,” she told TPR, adding that she believes the Taliban is likely to cut off their internet connection at some point.

Both Sorhardi Nelson and LeGree know they are running out of time.

"Right now — at this very moment — we received a message from one of our senior instructors who was crying because the Taliban had been in her house searching for documents asking her why she has this, why she has that," LeGree said. "It’s upon us. They’re here. I don’t know what will happen to her. I'm helpless to protect her."

17-year-old Habiba said amid all the chaos — when she thinks of her mountain climbing training — it brings her calmness and comfort.

These girls are strong and brave but right now all they can do is continue to hide and wait.

Courtesy of Ascend

This story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio. TPR was founded by and is supported by the community. If you value its commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

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