Time is running out for the female cyclists of Afghanistan

They need our help, and the reasons are not necessarily obvious at first.

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The 24 hour news cycle eats its young and will soon be moving on from the atrocities unfolding in Afghanistan since the Taliban reclaimed the country 32 days ago.

For a number of years, we’ve been inspired by Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team  – and all Afghan cyclists, for that matter – and have covered them throughout that time. With the latest deteriorations in Afghanistan, they are in immediate need of the cycling community’s help.

For some it’s literally a matter of life and death. For others it could mean severe punishment and living out a life none of us can imagine. For everyone, it’s over a decade of progress that was wound back overnight. 

Farid Noori runs the non-profit organisation MTB Afghanistan from his home in the United States which is building the culture of cycling in his home country, as well as helping with the infrastructure and programs needed to grow the sport and activity. With the overthrow of democracy in Afghanistan, overnight, Farid’s mandate changed to evacuating his country’s cyclists. 

I spoke to Noori about what his vision is, why it’s important, and most of all, how the cycling community can help make meaningful change in the lives of these fellow cyclists.

If you’d like to listen to the entire interview below, you can do so from the player above.

Wade Wallace: What’s your vision for cycling in Afghanistan through the work you do?

Farid Noori: The nonprofit [MTB Afghanistan] exists to serve young Afghans. We wanted to empower them. We wanted to improve their lives, and they’ve given a great deal. They embraced what we offered to them. Not only that, they were having fun but they were also promoting the values that we wanted to bring to the society, which was, create community, respect each other, promote gender equality.

As you know, 10 years ago, it was not even okay for women to ride bikes. These people, this small community of people were the early adopters of this change. They were actually promoting this. They were appearing in TV interviews after the races that we hosted, talking about their experience and painting this amazing egalitarian picture of Afghanistan.

When Kabul fell, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this summer, all of a sudden their lives were at risk because these people had been actively promoting all the ideals that the Taliban have now [shut down]. The actors who did all of these things are all of a sudden in danger.

WW: Can you paint a picture of what that means, in tangible terms, how this changes their lives practically overnight?

FN: It means that people burn their cycling clothes. It means that people hide their bikes and are hiding in safe houses. It means that from riding their bikes, all of a sudden they have to leave their beautiful, peaceful life in some remote village in Afghanistan and escape to Kabul with hopes of jumping on a plane like everyone else did, taking that risk with their lives in order to get out.

There’s no future for them now. There’s no hope for them. Their first need is safety. They don’t feel safe. It’s escaping from being imprisoned, living a life of imprisonment.

Evacuation aid worker, Lien Johnson of OutrideBike.org, reads a message sent to her from the Afghan female cyclists she’s trying to evacuate

WW: Are there direct repercussions for what they’ve stood for and what you’ve all grown in this movement in Afghanistan? Are there direct threats that are related to that?

FN: They were high-profile. They were not famous people, but they appeared on TV and there are digital traces about these people. The Taliban have  now banned sports for women across the board. And a lot of these women are still in Afghanistan. What they did in the past 20 years, that is now considered to be a sin, a crime.

There’s no orders yet, but the Taliban have made a lot of surprises in a very short period of time, regarding their atrocities. What they have done to a lot of people that they disliked. We’re talking about huge crimes against humanity.

WW: Tell me about the switch that you had to make in terms of what you did with MTB Afghanistan, to growing that to all of a sudden saving them. What did it mean for you and how you needed to act?

FN: Absolutely. It’s our responsibility. They obviously participated in our programs voluntarily. This is what they wanted to do. They helped propel our vision into the Afghan society. And now it is our responsibility to help them find safety, find happiness and be able to do… Safety is absolutely the first reason why we’re doing this, but the other one is they love riding bikes. I want them to live a life that is not imprisoned at home. I want them to be able to live a life that continues to make them happy through riding bikes.

Evacuation aid worker, Lien Johnson of OutrideBike.org, reads a message sent to her from the Afghan female cyclists she’s trying to evacuate

WW: On the ground, what type of support does this fundraising enable, they’re obviously not just packing their bags, like you and me would to go to the airport. There’s a whole set of logistics and safety and probably back doors. How does that work?

FN: Before August 31st as the deadline neared, it became increasingly complicated. People couldn’t reach the gates. There were a lot of efforts to try to find people within the city. They would send buses, there were code words. There were colour-coded indicators that allowed guards to see these people in crowds. Some of the people that are now in the US were airlifted from a location in Kabul with a helicopter to the airport on the runway.

WW: Can you break down and put in tangible terms how the raised  funds are being used?

FN: Yeah. So it is anything from having people airlifted – which I don’t think going forward we would need, we would put people in commercial flights to another location, but from there they would need to quarantine there for 14 days. We would have to pay for the cost of [that] and then to send people on another plane to the United States and then support them while they’re in a camp until their visa is processed. Provide them with basic things like clothing, internet and other needs that they need in the camp that is not provided by others. That’s the bulk of that $6,500, which is the figure [the cost information] we’re getting from our partner Human Rights Foundation.

The logistics is the biggest one. We have to rely on third parties for these flights. And there might be [the need for] legal help as well with the visas and everything. And so the base figure [MTB Afghanistan is targeting is] $250,000 for evacuation and to make sure that there’s a margin there for other expenses. And then [our] $500,000 goal is for resettlement.

The extra $250,000 there is helping them with rent in the first three to six months, helping them getting their basic needs and getting a start in life. If they wish to continue to ride bikes, we will do whatever it takes to make them feel at home both in terms of survival, but as cyclists continuing to support them – they’re obviously not carrying their bikes on these charter flights.

Evacuation aid worker, Lien Johnson of OutrideBike.org, reads a message sent to her from the Afghan female cyclists she’s trying to evacuate

WW: What would you say to people who might say, ‘why are you helping female cyclists? Why not just anybody and everybody?’

FN: Well, I think that cyclists in Afghanistan did a lot to propel progress. It was a visible act of powerful protest …  cycling was not banned but it was also not accepted, particularly for women. They risked their lives to be able to do the thing that they wanted to do – not just for themselves, not just for the love of the sport but for the love of the society. I have highlighted it in a couple articles. I’ve written about the risks, the lengths that people took to be able to exercise their basic freedom to ride a bike, basic human rights. And these are the individuals that … took these risks to be able to do this.

And now … their lives are at risk – at huge risk because they were women, [and] they were visible. They were in the news and everywhere they’re known.

I think that if they remained in Afghanistan, all the things that they wanted to fight for – be it having aspirations to race in the world stage, be it creating change for bringing equality in society – that will die. We can’t afford to have those dreams die.

These are highly aspirational people. These are very motivated people. We cannot let not only their lives face danger but also their dreams to have to be sentenced to death basically. I think that everyone who wants to get out of Afghanistan is equally [deserving], but I think it’s the responsibility of my organization and the cycling community in the world to help the people that we loved hearing about their bravery, that we loved reading about their playing against the odds, doing the impossible. 

I think that it’s not only for them: it’s for us. We believe in the things that they believed in, and by helping them, it’s the least that we can do.

Evacuation aid worker, Lien Johnson of OutrideBike.org, reads a message sent to her from the Afghan female cyclists she’s trying to evacuate

WW:  Anything else you’d like to say?

FN: For me this is a life project. We live in this beautiful country. We have not had the mobility to go see other places, different people, different languages, [but] we’re an incredibly diverse country – and I think that’s what cycling could open, and everyone we’re trying to help believes in that too.

And we need the individuals who can envision a different country to be able to get out of it. … I may not live to see the vision that I wanted, but could we plant the seeds for that? And I think that the people who we are helping evacuate, and saving their lives – we would also save those dreams. Everyone wants to go back. Everyone wants to go back at the earliest opportunity. But how do you keep them alive? And by keeping them alive, how do you keep those dreams alive?

 No one has ever become poor by giving.

Anne Frank

MTB Afghanistan’s goal is to raise $250,000 for evacuation of approximately 30 female cyclists to bring them to safety. Another $250,000 needs to be raised for resettlement. They have raised $99,000 so far.

Specialized Australia has also generously offered to match your donations dollar for dollar up to $10,000 (and has already contributed to this cause with a previous donation).

Together we can do this.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.