Khalida Popal, former member of the Afghanistan women’s national team, shares the story of how she fled her home country, experienced the healing power of football and how she is now using the beautiful game to empower young people from different backgrounds through the Football for Unity project with FC Nordsjælland.
Football for Unity is a project co-funded by the European Union’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the UEFA Foundation for Children. For more information, please click here.
I grew up with the passion for football
I started playing street football with my brothers when I was a child. I grew up and lived in a warzone, in Afghanistan, and then I left as a refugee when I was nine years old.
Until I was a teenager, I lived in a refugee centre as a refugee in Pakistan, because of the war, and the only thing that could motivate me – keep me together – was sport, especially football.
When I returned to my country, I played football with my brothers on the street, because football is the first game in my country.
At that time, I faced people trying to stop me from playing, because I was no longer a child. I was a grown-up woman and, because of that, they were trying to separate me from my team, which was a boys’ team – at that time, we didn’t have a girls’ team. So, people were telling me that I belonged in the kitchen, I belonged at home, and I existed to serve a man and make a man happy.
Every time that they said ‘no’ to me playing football, I said that I can prove to them that I can do it. Every time I played football, the minute that the ball rolled, I started feeling happy, I started feeling disconnected from all these challenges and problems I had as a refugee, as a child, when I had problems in society as a woman, as a girl.
When I was no longer allowed to play football on the street with my brothers, I was determined not to give up, but bring the passion, the love that I experienced, to all the women and the girls my age so they could also feel that experience.
Founder of the first first national women’s football team in Afghanistan
Then, I started a campaign at my school which spread to different schools, and then went all the way to creating a kind of league around the schools. That’s how we started getting more involvement from the federation, pushing the federation to recognise our league and then establish a first women’s national team in Afghanistan.
Every time I was pushed back, I stood back up and I said: ‘I’m not giving up’. I was sure I could do it and could do it better. That drove me to found the first national team of Afghanistan, build women’s football in Afghanistan, develop women’s football, be the very first female employee in the history of the Afghanistan Football Federation, be the first female director, and be the first female and the youngest board member of the Afghanistan Football Federation.
Football actually taught me a certain type of activism, how I could use football as a way to own my voice but also to support the other women in my country to own their voices. That’s how activism started in me – through football.
My activism and activities put me in great danger, so I could not live any longer in my country, and I had to leave. It was not only the people who are very religious or extremist, but also people who were afraid of losing power to women. That was a lot of pressure, and I wanted to save my voice to make a bigger impact and a bigger change, so I chose to leave my country.
The challenges of being a refugee
I travelled to Norway, where I lived in different refugee centres, I experienced living as a refugee in a different way, as a grown-up woman. When I experienced it for the first time I was more of a child and I didn’t feel it that deeply. Living in a refugee centre in Norway I felt so much pressure on women, the lack of social activities, the lack of interest in women and girls.
Then I moved to Denmark, and in Denmark I also lived in refugee centres. At that time, I was suffering from depression and I was traumatised. Living in a refugee centre, leaving your family and everything behind you, it’s tough. No matter how strong I was at that time, I felt like I was on my knees, and I was crying nights and days.
Then I witnessed so many women in the refugee centres going through depression and stress and some of the women were trying to end their lives. It was so sad. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to sit and cry’. No matter what happens to me, I don’t want to give up on my activism, on my mission to empower women and girls and also to use the power of sports to unite people, to unite women, and help women to be powerful and also be strong to manage to go through their difficult situation.
I remember that I felt that living in a refugee centre is like you live as a person with no identity – you’re no-one. You’re not part of the country, even if you’re in a very well-developed country, you’re known as no-one. You don’t have anything and there are not so many activities. There are a lot of restrictions and you have an unknown future, you don’t know what is waiting for you. I felt that living in a refugee centre I was like a doll hanging in the air, where I could not land on my feet, I could not fly in the sky, but I was hanging, and I didn’t know what to do.
Then I said to myself, ‘I have to help myself and also help others.’ I had to again use the power of sport that helped me in tough situations in my country. So, I started bringing the ball again, and then I started getting women and girls involved, we were living in the same centre, I started knocking on the doors and saying, ‘Come on, get out, we are going to run and then after running we’ll go and do some football and then we’ll do some dancing.’
I created my own organisation, ‘Girl Power’
When I got permission to stay in Denmark – I was still in the refugee centre and I was playing football in a football club – I decided to start my own organisation, where the main focus was empowering women, refugees and immigrants, or ethnic minorities, to gain an informal education. My organisation is Girl Power Organisation, which is more about empowering and supporting, connecting and making bridges between the local community and the refugee community, where like-minded people meet each other, share their stories and experiences and build a network.
Through Girl Power Organisation, we organise sports activities in the refugee centres, where we have the young leaders, the women with different cultural backgrounds, they go and coach the refugees and then we offer them education, or leadership academies.
Then I also started working with FC Nordsjælland, where my main responsibility is community projects and also women’s football, because the club has women’s and men’s football within its structure. I’m very proud and happy that this year we are working with streetfootballworld and with the UEFA Foundation for Children through the Football for Unity project that supports this vision and mission, that connects the different stakeholders, different organisations, together through one common project, and that is the power of football, which brings unity.
I’m thrilled that I’m leading this project, where our main focus is youth empowerment, where we have young people who we call ‘community champions’. They are from all cultural backgrounds. We have Danes and people from different ethnic minorities, boys and girls together. And it’s done through a leadership programme where we organise different educational workshops, where it’s more of a discussion, like a youth forum. We talk about inclusion, integration, and the impact of sport in people’s lives, in young people’s lives, and also the impact of sport and unity in society. It’s fantastic, and football is part of those activities.
We need to bring people together to support each other, . If I’m a refugee living in Denmark right now – I have the status of a refugee in Denmark – it was not by choice. I didn’t say ‘Let’s have some fun and let’s go and be a refugee.’ Nobody wants to leave their country, nobody wants to leave their dream, their family, their heritage and everything to which they belong. But there are situations where people are forced to become refugees. It’s not the refugees’ problem – it’s the world’s problem. And it’s all of our responsibility to take care of each other, because today we have refugees from wars, we have refugees from environmental crises; there will be many, many more.
So, how can we have a socially responsible world where we are taking care of each other, a world where everybody supports each other, and everyone is nice to each other? Like in football. When you walk onto the football pitch, it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, how white or how black you are, or how brown you are, you play the same game. All that matters are the team and the goals. That’s why football is a good lesson to everybody in the world. You just need to think about the pitch, about the team and about the goal, to just have a wonderful world together, where people accept each other, people respect each other, and they are role models to each other, too.
The best thing is that Football for Unity is not a ‘refugee project’, it’s a unity project where we have, for example, kids who were born and raised in Denmark, but who are second generation immigrants. It’s like a common ground where they come together under one umbrella.
I really love the idea of not just being focused on one group, but adopting more of a [collaborative] approach. The main focus is, of course, on supporting and empowering young people. One of the challenges in society in Denmark is that there’s a lot of negative media around the refugee topic, where they talk about: ‘Refugees are coming to take our social benefits. They take our money. They take our places.’ But these types of activities and projects help to connect people, to share their stories: ‘Why am I here? Why am I in Denmark? I’m a refugee, what does it mean to be a refugee?’
Refugees need role models
That’s part of why I give back. When I stand up and lead this project and also, for example, lead some of the workshops, so that refugees and non-refugees see me as a role model, so that refugees see me and say, ‘Oh, she could do it, I can do that, too.’ Then non-refugees see me and say, ‘She’s not taking the money, she’s not living here for free, she’s not coming here to take our money, but she’s actually contributing to give back to society. She needed protection, but she’s also working at paying tax, working, getting a salary. That’s how she’s contributing to society.’
I think the role-modelling and empowering of youth from all cultural backgrounds is very important because the next generation sees them as positive role models and then they can say, ‘Okay, I can do it. I can be part of it.’ And it will also change the mindset in society to one of, ‘Yes, refugees come, but they don’t come to take our money, they also come to contribute because they are in our country, because their life was in danger, or because there were certain social or political problems.’ So, that’s why we need a lot of role models in Europe, especially.
My wish for EURO 2020
If the pandemic has given one lesson to everybody then it is about how difficult it is to be isolated, how difficult it is to miss dearest ones, the people you like, how it is to not have access to the things that you want, how it is to not have the freedom you want. So, I really hope that during this UEFA EURO 2020, people will feel more respect, acceptance, and just enjoy the unity, and just enjoy the inclusion and fun of the game.