Afghan women cyclists who escaped the Taliban reflect on their journey to Canada
Calgary has been home to Afghan cyclist Maryam Mohammadi and her husband since last April, after they escaped the Taliban.
They made a treacherous journey out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021 and imposed a ban on all sports, including cycling, for Afghan women and girls.
“We had a long tough journey after Kabul collapsed,” Mohammadi told CTVNews.ca over the phone. “First, we went to Tajikistan and then we were evacuated to Abu Dhabi. Finally, after six months of staying in Abu Dhabi, we came to Canada.”
“I had never thought that one day we would be gone centuries back. Unfortunately, it happened and we lost all we gained” Mohammadi added.
The 23-year-old Mohammadi started cycling in 2014 when cycling was a taboo for women in Afghanistan, particularly, in the conservative Bamiyan province where she was born and raised.
“I’ve been fighting for my rights and dreams. Unfortunately, I have not been able to convince my family that a girl also can be an athlete. I have been cycling in hiding and my family still doesn’t know that I am cycling.”
Thousands of kilometres away from her family, Mohammadi is now preparing to resume her cycling training at Watt Riot Cycling, a non-profit women’s development cycling team in Calgary.
Mohammadi is not alone. So far, 13 Afghan cyclists have joined the Watt Riot Cycling team for the 2023 season.
Afghan women cyclists from Canada attend the Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan in Switzerland in October 2022.
“I heard about a large group of Afghan cyclists in Alberta that were in need of some support,” Watt Riot Cycling founder Erin Ruttan told CTVNews.ca in an email. “When Cycling Canada (our national governing body) approached the Alberta Bicycle Association (ABA, our provincial governing body) in the summer of 2022 and offered my assistance. This has led to the 13 individuals joining the team. In general, riders find out about our team through events, word of mouth, or referral from coaches.”
“Sponsorship allows us to offer members deep discounts on equipment. This year we received a participation grant from the federal government to help support programming and equipment costs for underrepresented groups, this will allow us to provide helmets, shoes, and pedals for any of the Afghan members who are in need of this piece of equipment,” Ruttan explained.
As part of this sponsorship, Ruttan says Afghan cyclists will be registered for the local Wild Rose Women’s Fondo in June so that they can participate in group rides, team training sessions, and team events. Watt Riot Cycling is also covering the license fees and the cost of the jerseys for all new members.
Since August 2021, over 126 female Afghan cyclists and family members have been evacuated and resettled in seven countries with the help of Shannon Galpin, an American human rights activist.
Galpin helped some female Afghan cyclists to come to Canada and now she is trying to connect them with clubs and athlete teams so they can resume their routine practice.
“There has been a long pause in our activities after moving to Canada. A big number of female Afghan cyclists are here (in Canada) who desperately need help,” said Najila Sakhizada, an Afghan cyclist who has been cycling since 2016, in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
Sakhizada, who works part-time and attends English classes, now is very excited now to join the Watt Riot Cycling club where she can resume her cycling with the donated bicycle from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sport’s world governing body.
Najila Sakhizada holds the Afghanistan flag after racing at the Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan in Switzerland in October 2022.
But even after arriving in Canada, many these athletes have also faced challenges getting back into the sport that they love. After moving to Canada, Sakhizada says many Afghan women cyclists have been unable to find time to train, being too busy with their refugee documentation and surviving financially.
A group of 10 female Afghan cyclists from Canada attended the Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan last October in Switzerland, but none of them claimed any medals due to a lack of practice.
“Neither I was ready nor I had a bicycle, still I participated in the competition, and I think all of us did very well,” 20-year-old Fereshta Mehraeen, another Afghan cyclist who is living away from her family in Calgary, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview..
Getting used to Calgary’s long and cold winter has posed another challenge for these cyclists. But despite all the hurdles she has gone through, the only thing that bothers Sakhizada is the situation for women back home in Afghanistan.
In addition to banning sports for women and girls, the Taliban has also banned women from working in the government and attending schools and universities. According to UNICEF three million girls have been deprived of secondary education since August 2021.
In December, the group also ordered all foreign and domestic non-governmental groups in Afghanistan to suspend employing women.
“(The) world should do more about women in Afghanistan. They’re going through a lot. As a human, it’s my responsibility to raise my voice for women in Afghanistan and I will do it wherever I go,” Sakhizada said.
However, after a year-long pause from the sport, these cyclists say they’re excited about their next adventure and want to inspire other Afghan women to fight for their freedom.
“I am trying my best to fulfill my lifetime dream that one day, I should be able to compete in the Olympics,” Mehraeen added.