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A Reflection on Afghanistan: One Year Later

On April 14, 2021, US President Joe Biden announced that after a 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US would begin to remove troops from May 1, for a complete departure of all troops by September 11, 2021. Ascend was hopeful at the time that the country had progressed enough in the last 20 years to not go backwards, and although we made contingency plans, we had no intention of stopping our work to empower the young women of Afghanistan in our new sports center in Kabul and the beautiful mountains of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we were wrong.

Soon after the announcement, the Taliban began launching successful offensive campaigns starting in the southern provinces and pushing their reach and authority closer and closer to Kabul. On August 15, with the Taliban just outside of Kabul and Afghan forces rapidly surrendering, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country and the Taliban took over the government.

Taliban searched buses, including the buses our evacuees were on. Crowds at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) made the airport impossible to access. Reports that a major attack was imminent put us on high alert. On August 26, a suicide bomber at the airport killed 183 people.

Risking their lives, thousands of Afghans swarmed to the airport hoping to make it onto a flight and out of the country (we all remember the pictures of people desperately trying to board full flights). Many had partnered with the US government and feared their involvement would lead to persecution. Others, like Ascend’s staff and participants, worried their involvement in an NGO supporting the empowerment of women through sport would put them in harm's way - since women’s ability to participate in society, education, and politics previously under the Taliban was almost totally forbidden. The majority of the people fleeing left their homes and belongings with no idea whether they’d ever again see their family members staying behind.

At Ascend, we knew we had to act quickly to protect the future of the Ascend staff and participants who had bravely been a part of the program. In an instant, staff and board members mobilized people and resources, working around the clock to help find safe passage out of Afghanistan.

Zainab sleeping outside the HKIA with her family, waiting for a flight to Denmark in August 2021, and a photo of Zainab from our 2020 Winter Sports Festival. She and her family waited three days at the airport before making it out on a flight to Denmark.

The first two groups of Afghans were evacuated from Kabul airport on August 21 and 22, after multiple harrowing attempts to get inside. A third group left a few days later, all flown to the evacuee camp in Abu Dhabi on U.S. military planes. The fear and chaos were palpable, as the world watched the news unfolding from their homes.

On August 26 a suicide bomb at the airport killed 183 people. Amid this chaos and tragedy, Ascend continued to push for a way out for as many participants as possible. Because Ascend is an independent, privately funded organization, no government was obligated to protect our people or provide visas to anywhere. So, staff, volunteers and board members worked nonstop, calling in every connection they had, in the hope of persuading governments to grant visas, and securing as many seats as possible for the girls out of Afghanistan. It was days and nights of endlessly making lists of people for whoever might have a way out, calling every connection, and fielding calls and messages from desperate people hoping for a future free from the Taliban.

Two Ascend staff and their families were on the approved list for HKIA (first two photos). They circled the airport on a bus for two days and two nights but were unable to get through because crowds overran the gates each time Marines opened them to let approved people in. They all eventually made it out of Afghanistan through other exit points and settled in Chile. Two Ascend alumnae (last photo) and their husbands had a difficult time crossing the border into Pakistan despite having permissions and letters allowing legal passage. After a few failed attempts, they made it to Quetta, crossing on foot through the desert at 3 am. In total 19 people made it to Chile, including 7 children and the group that crossed on foot.

Shortly after the bombing at the airport, an Ascend instructor and her family safely reached Denmark. Soon after, three more Ascend alumnae along with their spouses, reached Quetta, Pakistan. Thirty-three more Ascend folks arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport after a harrowing bus journey from Kabul. This group then spent a month grounded in Mazar-e-Sharif, sleeping in a wedding hall-turned-shelter, waiting for their planes to be allowed to take off to safety as the Taliban bickered with governments about who could leave and who could not. Finally, word came, we had secured flights for those waiting and, despite rumors and fears of attacks, the girls made their way to the airport and onto the start of their lives abroad.

Ascend’s evacuation efforts continued until February 2022. However, our work for those evacuated didn’t stop once we had them safely out of Afghanistan, we also needed to help them secure new homes elsewhere. Ascend helped evacuate135 people, with the majority already in Chile, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Canada, Kazakhstan, Poland and the US. Today nearly every girl has moved to a final destination with only a handful in Abu Dhabi and Pakistan still waiting for a visa (while we continue to help support these girls, the granting of visas is out of Ascend’s hands).

Some of the girls were evacuated to Poland on the last Pakistani International Airlines (PIA) flight out of Kabul. They were met at the airport by a friend of an Ascend board member. Two of the girls pictured remained in Poland, the other four were part of the 20 who settled in Ireland.

In October, we had a surprise opportunity to help more girls leave on a flight from Manzar. They boarded a bus at 5:30am, rode 10 hours, and a few days later were flown to Abu Dhabi. They are all now in Canada.

While this time represented a loss of hope and sense of an ending for many, Ascend has been humbled to see so many new beginnings; opportunities to build communities in new societies, explore new partnerships, even climb new mountains. Amid the tragedy, girls have found jobs and internships, registered for university and school, and there have even been new lives brought into the world as two Ascend girls have started families of their own.

From this tragedy came so many amazing people giving help and so many incredible partnerships born. The amount of people who reached out and offered their homes, donations, and networks was overwhelming to see. While Ascend’s board and staff are global, it was the local communities where the Ascend girls landed that made resettlement a success. In particular we’d like to thank the communities in Ireland, Chile, Germany, Poland, and the US, but also the many around the world who gave their time and efforts, even if their governments didn’t come through.

With active efforts from a group in Ireland, 20 girls made it to Dublin and Galway where they were met at the airport by their Irish sponsors. Marina was able to visit the girls in November at the convent in Wicklow where the Dominican sisters looked after them until they were able to move into their new homes. They even had time to escape to the mountains for a hike together.

These incredible outcomes would not have been possible without the help of so many, but most especially the efforts of Ascend Founder and Executive Director, Marina LeGree. Marina worked day and night, fielding email and phone calls, tracking the evacuees on ‘Live Location’ while they tried to enter the airport, engaging every contact of Ascend’s, presenting to the media, and so much more. She has always done, and continues to do, all that is possible for the women of Ascend, even if it means time away from her family. Were it not for her passion, the outcomes could have been vastly different.

One year later we reflect on what happened, how far we have all come, and how we are all stronger because of it. After witnessing the strength and bravery of the Ascend girls, we are even more dedicated to our mission knowing that self-confidence and courage can be uncovered through the leadership, service and climbing Ascend offers. We are excited to encourage these values in new girls, in new locations.

Ascend supporters in the US welcomed some of the girls from Fort Dix, offering them homes, bikes, jobs, and whatever else was needed to begin a new life. In December another group of girls arrived in North Carolina and were greeted and taken care of by the Friends of Ascend Triangle group.

Ascend is actively exploring options for programs in either Pakistan or Morocco with a start date in 2023. These locations have been chosen based on where Ascend’s program can have the biggest impact for young women, and we look forward to exploring their mountains with the next generation of Ascend participants.

In addition, we are working with partners in Afghanistan to continue to offer a version of the Ascend program to girls and young women in Kabul. We believe in the women of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts, even while the Taliban remain on a path to take the country, and women’s rights, back 20+ years. Afghanistan will always remain a place for Ascend programming in whatever ways we can manage.

We cannot express enough gratitude to all those, past, present and future who have made the mission and resettlement efforts of Ascend possible. We cannot wait to blaze new trails with you in the coming months and years.

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