Afghan athletes who thought they were headed for Canada plead with Ottawa: 'Don't break our hearts'
Female athletes were evacuated by FIFA with a Canadian document they believed was a visa
A star of Afghanistan's national women's basketball team thought she would be in Canada by now, building a new life with her family after they were forced to flee their old one.
Instead, they're stuck living in a northern Albania hotel, mired in uncertainty.
Dozens of female Afghan athletes who bravely represented their country at home and abroad are at the same hotel and in the same predicament — anxious for any news about their futures as they grow increasingly concerned for the family members they left behind.
"It's very difficult," the basketball player said. "We are waiting with no information."
CBC News interviewed two women from the group and spoke to several others. Their identities are being concealed, as they fear their trailblazing involvement in women's sports and activism for equal rights will make their loved ones a target for Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.
WATCH | Afghan athletes in limbo after being flown out of Kabul:
"It wasn't very easy in Afghanistan for a woman to take part in sports, but we fought for our rights, for our education," the basketball player said. "When the Taliban came, we lost everything."
And so, fearing for their lives, they were desperate to flee.
Their evacuation from Afghanistan was facilitated by FIFA, the international soccer governing body — with the help of a Canadian document.
The athletes said they believed the document meant they had been granted a visa — but that wasn't the case.
"I told my family, 'I'm going to start a new life in Canada and then I will save your life,'" said another woman from the group.
Instead, they've been living in limbo for more than three months — devastated that their dreams of life in Canada were dashed by a seeming misunderstanding over paperwork in the frantic weeks following the Taliban victory.
They're now pleading with Ottawa to resettle them.
"You helped make us powerful before," the basketball player said of the impact Canada's mission in Afghanistan had on the lives of women.
"We want to contribute to Canada," she said. "Don't break our hearts now."
'It was a chaotic time'
The rush to evacuate the athletes began as the Taliban retook Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15.
Advocates for women in sport were working their contacts, putting together lists of names of those at risk, desperately trying to help as many female athletes as possible get out of the country.
The Taliban banned women from playing sports — and taking part in most other aspects of society — during their first regime. The advocates were deeply worried about the athletes' safety.
"It was a chaotic time," said Mara Gubuan, founder of Equality League, a U.S.-based NGO dedicated to gender equality in sport. "All the circumstances were changing — not just day by day, but hour by hour and minute by minute."
Gubuan and her staff were connected with a group of female basketball players tied to the Afghan national team. Gubuan said she gave their names to a contact at FIFA, who then passed along letters the organization said it received from the Canadian government.
Each letter said the person holding it had been granted a visa to Canada. The document featured a Canadian coat of arms and a stamp from Global Affairs.
Letters like the ones the athletes had were distributed by Canadian officials during the chaos of the Western evacuation of Afghanistan to people who had applied to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), said Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for the agency, in a statement.
The purpose of the document was to help those Afghans get through the maze of checkpoints surrounding Kabul airport and onto planes bound for Canada before the evacuation ended, Caron said.
"This is not the same thing as a travel document authorizing entrance to Canada," she added.
In follow-up statements, Caron said, "legitimate letters were only sent directly to impacted IRCC applicants via an email from the Government of Canada," and "we are not able to speculate as to what third party communications some individuals may have received."
In the case of the basketball team, Gubuan said FIFA forwarded the letters to her. Her staff then passed them onto a representative from the team in Kabul, who distributed them to the larger group over the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service, which is widely used among Afghans.
Gubuan, who worked closely with FIFA on the evacuation process, said it seemed clear to her from their communications that the soccer giant was in direct contact with the Canadian government, adding she's confident the letters were obtained in good faith.
She also said that there are dozens of women still in Afghanistan who have the same letters.
The FIFA connection
Many of the athletes tried to use the letters before the Western evacuation was over, but they couldn't make it through the crush of people.
"That was very hard for us," the basketball player said. "We went back to where we were staying and started to cry."
They then went into hiding in Kabul until they had another way out of Afghanistan. It came on Oct. 20, when FIFA helped secure seats for them on an evacuation flight organized by the government of Qatar.
There was a similar FIFA-affiliated flight carrying female soccer players and human rights activists, many of whom also had the Canadian letters, a week earlier, on Oct. 14. In total, FIFA helped evacuate 156 at-risk Afghans, most of whom were female athletes.
As they tearfully said goodbye to their country, the athletes were buoyed by the belief they would soon be living in Canada.
"We started again to believe in our futures," the basketball player said. "We were imagining where we would go to continue our education, what job we could have — we were searching everything on Google about Canada."
She said her son nervously asked if the Taliban would be in Canada, too.
"I told him, 'No, you will start a new life without any problems,'" she said. "He became very happy."
But by the time the athletes travelled with the letters, they no longer had any power with the Canadian government.
Caron said a message was sent via email on Aug. 30 to "clients" who had been sent the letters by IRCC, saying they "no longer served a purpose" with the official evacuation being over.
But that message never made it to the athletes, they said.
The irregular channel through which they got their letters — due to the circumstances of the evacuation and the need to get the women out quickly — appears to have contributed to the confusion surrounding their cases.
FIFA declined an interview with CBC News, but in a statement, a spokesperson said the soccer body is working with "various authorities and organizations, including the Canadian government, to help find a permanent home for the group."
Caron said she could not comment on this specific case, citing privacy concerns.
A source with knowledge of the evacuation told CBC News that FIFA was not informed until mid-September that the letters were no longer valid with the Canadian government. That same source said the athletes were then told by FIFA that additional visas or documentation may be required for Canadian resettlement.
While the letters have not brought the athletes to Canada, the group would not have been able to escape Afghanistan without them.
Afghans boarding international flights from Kabul airport are required to have a document confirming they had been accepted by another country.
But the documents also spurred false hope.
"This has been very exasperating and frustrating, because I believe many people with power have not exerted it properly in this scenario," Gubuan said, referring to the letters no longer carrying any weight. "As a result, it has just compounded the trauma."
'They should honour those letters'
The women said it was only made clear to them that their resettlement in Canada was not guaranteed after they fled Kabul — a reality that only sunk in as days passed with no flight onward.
The group was first flown to Doha, Qatar, where they spent several weeks at a housing complex built for this year's World Cup. About a week after they landed, they were visited by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who tried to reassure them.
"We will continue to knock on all the doors around the world, and we hope that some ... will open the doors to these girls, who all have an amazing life story to tell," Infantino said.
A month later, the group was moved by FIFA to Shëngjin, Albania, now a major hub for Afghan refugees awaiting resettlement in other countries. The athletes have temporary status in Albania until they're resettled somewhere else permanently.
They're grateful to be safe, but every day is marked by an uneasy monotony, as they wait for any information about their futures. Their anxiety is growing — the athletes said many on the team are struggling with anxiety and depression.
The Canadian government "should take those letters into consideration, they should honour those letters," one of the women said.
As female leaders, the women should be eligible for Canada's special humanitarian immigration program, launched as part of the federal government's promise to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees, said Warda Shazadi Meighen, a refugee and human rights lawyer in Toronto.
Shazadi Meighen said Ottawa needs to act faster to get Afghan refugees to Canada. In the nearly six months since the Taliban takeover, just 7,140 have arrived.
"There's no reason that we can't issue temporary resident permits to make those letters visas," Shazadi Meighen said. "Especially when they are female athletes who would have been at risk under the Taliban and have nowhere to go."
It's the athletes' dream — but it's getting harder to hold onto.
"We have a big hole in our hearts and minds about Canada," the basketball star said. "We really need your help."