In 2021, Ascend helped evacuate and resettle 134 Afghans around the world. This is our story of this time.
The speed caught everyone by surprise. The Taliban’s advance was inevitable, as was their eventual return to some form of governing role in Afghanistan – or at least parts of it. We saw this throughout early 2021 and were starting to prepare our programs and participants for it.
But like most organizations, events overtook us in early August. Province after province began to fall around the country. The Taliban edged closer to Kabul, soon encircling the city. It was clear that collapse was coming and our plans had to change.
We knew our girls were at risk even before the Taliban first entered Kabul on August 15th. The threats to their physical safety were obvious. The country was on edge, with any remaining rule of law dissipating as Afghan police and security forces melted away. But the Taliban’s return intensified the risks to those associated with Ascend. Our people became acutely vulnerable, given the Taliban’s record and reputation on women’s rights. Nobody knew how they would react to organizations like ours but it was clear that we could not wait to find out.
Nobody was coming to our rescue.
Our board began to react even before Kabul descended into uncertainty. We were already prioritizing and planning as panic spread among our participants. We worked around the clock to locate all Ascend affiliates. We established communications channels with over 200 girls, many of whom were in hiding. We undertook a colossal feat of administration to collate contact details, passports, national IDs and family documentation from all participants. We formed relationships with other organizations facing the same struggle. We engaged Senators, Members of Congress and military officials to try to find the right pathways to safety.
While the world watched anarchy unfold at Kabul airport, getting our girls to safety became our first priority. But we also had one eye on the future. We recognized that getting on a plane was only the first step. Our girls were leaving everything they knew, for an uncertain future, with nothing but what they could carry in a small backpack. They would need visas. They would need resettlement support. They would need new lives – with dignity and legality.
Ascend’s support network heard our rallying cry. Volunteers mobilized and we called in favors from all possible contacts. We knew that time was limited. It was a matter of days before the airport gates closed permanently. The Taliban were also increasing their control of the streets and beginning to target girls like ours. Then ISIS detonated a device right outside the airport.
That was the final straw for us, especially with some of our girls injured in the attack. We knew we needed other options. We needed to pivot our approach away from the airport.
It was a prescient realization because the end of all airport evacuations came just days later. As the gates clinked shut, Kabul descended into darkness and dejection. We had devoted years of effort to encouraging our participants to dream big, to step outside the line, to change society and, most of all, to believe in themselves. Had those hopes and dreams completely dissipated as that last plane disappeared into the night sky?
The nightmare was coming true for Afghanistan. But Ascend teaches girls not to give up on their dreams. If anything, our resolve was strengthened. We had proven that we could operate effectively in crisis, even with all odds stacked against us.
We had succeeded in getting some of our girls out of harm's way. This was, in large part, due to our donors. The donations we received had given us options. It allowed us to organize aircraft, secure visas and find fixers who could do everything it took to get our girls to safety. Having this support in place enabled us to react decisively, at speed, and without time-consuming fundraising obligations. It allowed us to act responsibly.
It also enabled us to pivot.
Kabul went quiet as September broke, with the Taliban now controlling every inch of Afghanistan. The airport anarchy transitioned to an eerie, apprehensive calm across the country.
But there was no pause for Ascend. It was time for a stock-take. The panicked attempts to escape had scattered our affiliates in every direction. We needed to find them, fast. This prompted a colossal administrative operation as our team consolidated spreadsheets, cross-checked information and contacted all our girls, despite some going into hiding and using cellphones sparingly.
As our staff and board worked around the clock, volunteers continued to support us elsewhere. Many started fundraising in multiple countries, forming networks which would later grow into several Friends of Ascend groups.
Simultaneous to the administrative operation, we continued to seek out other routes to safety for our stranded girls. We considered overland crossings to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. We heard rumours of routes into Iran. We had a group of girls attempt to get to Pakistan via a taxi through Kandahar. We also navigated the many evacuation entrepreneurs who offered seats on uncertain flights for high costs.
The biggest single movement involved bussing large groups of our girls to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country, where our friends had secured seats on planes for our group. The first mini-bus to attempt the arduous ten-hour journey was a group who had already been circling Kabul airport for three straight days, waiting for a chance to enter.
Packed with passengers, including children as young as three years old, the bus managed to pass multiple Taliban checkpoints and reach Mazar. Everyone was then taken to a wedding hall that was acting as a transit hub, expecting to depart imminently.
But their hopes were dashed. The group waited for 34 days before the runway was opened and they were put on a flight. They waited so long, in such uncertainty because we all knew it was the only chance they might get.
The Mazar effort underlined the risks that our participants were willing to take, and the lengths that Ascend went to in order to support our people. It was a time defined by heart stopping moments. Opportunities emerged momentarily, and evaporated just as quickly. It was a 24/7 task to find any remaining pathways – one where moments of doubt and missed phone calls had the potential to change lives. It also underscored the importance of our partnerships, as we relied on gestures of goodwill and donations to sustain the girls while they waited for their opportunity.
By the time that the first plane took off from Mazar, the global sympathy for Afghanistan was starting to dwindle. Those special circumstances of the initial evacuation phase would not last. It was becoming more of a grind. Phones weren’t getting answered as quickly. The goodwill of various governments was waning. Momentum was starting to stall as global attention shifted elsewhere.
It was even more bleak inside Afghanistan. Girls’ schools were not reopening. Exams were being missed. Restrictions on girls’ mobility were becoming permanent. The new reality was being cemented, which intensified the girls’ pleas for help.
We began having some difficult conversations, and taking even more difficult decisions. We had to inform our girls that, for some, evacuation would not be imminent. It could take months, especially as some of our focus had to be diverted to those who were starting to arrive in other countries. We had succeeded in getting many girls to safety. But now we also needed to sustain them while they restarted their lives – especially those who had nobody else but us.
It was the girls themselves who provided a beacon of hope. Our program had equipped them with the tools they needed to navigate the events of 2021. We had given them some exposure to resilience and tenacity. They had demonstrated these skills even at the peak of the panic, and then again in the following months when we had to pivot to new approaches. They would need these qualities even more as the resettlement got underway.
An initial effort to get our girls to safety had spiraled into a multi-faceted complex operation as September turned to October. We were juggling last frantic efforts to find pathways out of Afghanistan with simultaneous attempts to set up partnerships and secure resettlement support in other countries.
Not all efforts succeeded. Failure had become a familiar feeling as 2021 drew to a close. But the successes started to come too. Groups of our girls began to land in their new countries – Chile first, followed by Ireland, then Germany, Denmark and Poland.
The challenge was that Ascend now needed new skills. We had to learn how to navigate national bureaucracies, issues of parental consent and processes for unaccompanied minors. We leaned heavily on volunteers to help our girls adapt to the practicalities and cultural realities. Our own policy change was also a necessity. We had undertaken a task that forced us to deviate from how we traditionally operated. We were still under pressure, still operating on instinct and still following through on unprecedented promises with an infrastructure built for different purposes.
As weeks turned to months, the stress on our girls was also becoming evident. The temporary transit camp in Abu Dhabi housing many of them grew more crowded, and the initial euphoria of escape faded into despair for some. Most were separated from their families, and all were processing the trauma of losing their homes and their dreams. With this in mind, we started Ascend Online to provide daily yoga and fitness classes, as well as counselling and nutritional advice. We set up a network of Dari speaking therapists and counsellors. We did what we could with the resources we had.
In spring 2022 the fruits of our labor started to blossom. The stress of the evacuation had left scars and the trauma would take time to heal, but within weeks of landing in different countries, our girls started to adapt. Communities put on welcome events. There were day trips to explore new surroundings. Language lessons were commenced. New friendships were forged. Offers of jobs trickled through. School backpacks re-emerged and the younger girls were soon heading back to class.
What really became evident was the common ground of values. We became spread across the globe but we remained united by Ascend’s ideals. Whether participant or staff, donor or volunteer, everyone involved was clearly committed to some basic values – a belief that girls should be free, healthy and safe. The right to live freely and to be educated was taken away from them, so we rallied to help give it back. Together.
It is why they took those risks. It is why we struggled. It is what kept us going. It also ensured that the girls were set up to succeed in new settings.
Administrative challenges continued to emerge throughout 2022. Beyond familiar fundraising efforts, we had to create new processes to ensure our girls were sustained in the initial months of resettling elsewhere. We had to determine what each receiving country needed from us and we worked hard to find contacts on the ground to ensure we were acting responsibly. We were adamant that we would see it through.
This is where donors, partners and volunteers really came to the fore. Whether it was housing, education, employment, coaching, counselling or mentoring, the Friends of Ascend wrapped our girls in support. They worked tirelessly to help them integrate and start to lead successful independent lives within months of landing. Together, we made it clear to the girls that Ascend is not a resettlement agency but that we were providing a platform from which they could launch new lives.
It was a challenge that the girls eagerly accepted.
In Poland, Sara and Asma entered university in Krakow, working part time and improving their Polish language skills. Polish people welcomed them from the moment they arrived at the train station in Krakow. New friends took them to the climbing gym and on weekend hiking adventures to help ease their transition. Sara plans to become a teacher.
In the west of Ireland, Zargona worked hard to obtain an internship at National University of Ireland in Galway. With the help of Irish mentors, she won a place in a master’s program to research cancer, and is focused on finding new cures for the disease.
In Dublin, Sakina joined the cross country team at her college and won a race. Sh studied English intensively and began working part time.
In the United States, the girls in North Carolina began working and improving their English so that they could study. College applications went in with the help of mentors. Acceptances followed. Sughra focused intently on finding a way to university as soon as she hit U.S. soil; she’s studying business at George Washington University on a full scholarship.
In Chile, Sakina and Masoma held their first gallery exhibition to showcase their paintings. Zahra collaborated with Chilean friends on an Afghan food start-up, and explored Chile’s mountains.
In Vancouver, Rohina landed a professional job in her chosen field thanks to partners. Her teammates are spread across Canada, working and studying English.
Everywhere they have landed, the girls are sifting through the fallout of leaving their lives behind. They are finding footholds, and making their way forward.
As 2022 drew to a close, Ascend returned to its mission of empowering girls through sport. Through our Ascend Alumnae Association, we stay connected to the girls, and encourage and support them to get out climbing. In Pakistan, we launched a brand new program. In Afghanistan, we opened our doors to girls once again with a new staff of local instructors.
The extraordinary events of 2021 and 2022 showed us that in a crisis, our girls displayed profound courage and focus. They exemplified the values our program is built upon. That knowledge drives us to keep moving forward, and to bring our program to girls everywhere who want to become their strongest selves.
IN THE END
Between August 2021 and September 2022, Ascend successfully evacuated 134 of our affiliates from Afghanistan. We succeeded because we could focus on what mattered most to get our girls to safety. We emerged as a more effective organization. Both are a direct result of having donor support in place, which enabled us to act decisively and responsibly.
The past year demonstrated the importance of equipping girls with the tools we give them. Their bravery, resilience and leadership qualities exemplified our ideals. They fought for what they believed to be right and they never gave up on their aspirations.
This has strengthened our resolve. We will now continue our mission with a new initiative in Pakistan and a return to Afghanistan. We continue to engage past participants through the Ascend Alumnae Association.
Thanks to our donors, these girls adapted to extraordinary circumstances and are now facing a future of achievement. We have permanently changed the trajectory of our girls' lives.
We have proven that our form of empowerment works.
WHERE ARE THEY?
Now that the Afghan evacuees have started their new lives in new locations it is time for Ascend to look forward and empower new girls again.