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Afghan cyclists reflect on their trip to Canada

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Calgary has been home to Afghan cyclist Maryam Mohammadi and her husband since last April, after fleeing the Taliban.

They made the treacherous journey from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the country in August 2021 and banned all sports, including cycling, for Afghan women and girls.

“We have gone through a long and difficult journey after the collapse of Kabul,” Mohammadi told CTVNews.ca by phone. First we went to Tajikistan, then we were evacuated to Abu Dhabi. Finally, after six months in Abu Dhabi, we made it to Canada.

“I never thought we would ever get back there. Unfortunately, it happened and we lost everything we won,” Mohammadi added.

Mohammadi, 23, started cycling in 2014 when cycling was taboo for women in Afghanistan, especially in the conservative province of Bamiyan where she was born and raised.

I fight for my rights and my dreams. Unfortunately, I failed to convince my family that a girl can also be an athlete. I bike underground and my family still doesn’t know I cycle. »

Thousands of miles away from her family, Mohammadi is now preparing to resume her cycling training at Riot Bikes, the nonprofit women’s cycling development team based in Calgary.

Mohammadi is not alone. To date, 13 Afghan riders have joined the Watt Riot cycling team for the 2023 season.

Afghan cyclists from Canada will compete in the Afghan Women’s Road Championships in Switzerland in October 2022.

“I heard about a large group of Afghan cyclists in Alberta who needed support,” Watt Riot Cycling founder Erin Rutan told CTVNews.ca in an email. “When Cycling Canada (our national board) approached the Alberta Cycling Association (ABA, the provincial governing body) in the summer of 2022 and offered to help me. This allowed 13 people to join the team. Overall, riders got to know our team through events or word of mouth. or recommendations from trainers.

“The sponsorship allows us to offer members deep discounts on equipment. This year, we received a participation grant from the federal government to help subsidize programming and equipment costs for underrepresented groups, which will allow us to provide helmets, shoes, and pedals to any Afghan members who need this equipment.” he said to Rotan.

As part of the sponsorship, Rutan says the Afghan cyclists will be registered at a local Wild Rose Women’s Fondo office in June so they can participate in group rides, team training sessions, and team events. Watt Riot Cycling also covers the license fee and cost of jerseys for all new members.

Since August 2021, more than 126 Afghan female cyclists have been evacuated from their family members and resettled to seven countries with the help of Shannon Galpin, an American human rights activist.

Ghalibin helped some Afghan cyclists come to Canada and is now trying to connect them with clubs and sports teams so they can resume their exercise routines.

“There has been a long break in our activities after moving to Canada. There are a lot of Afghan cyclists here (in Canada) and they desperately need help.

Shekhizadeh, who works part-time and studies English, is now very happy to join the Watt Riot cycling club where she can resume cycling with a bike donated by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body’s sports scientist.

Najila Shekhizadeh holds the Afghan flag after participating in the Afghan Women’s Road Championship in Switzerland in October 2022.

But even after arriving in Canada, many of these athletes struggled to return to the sport they loved. After moving to Canada, Sakizada says many Afghan cyclists have not been able to find time to train because they are too busy documenting refugees and surviving financially.

A group of 10 Afghan female cyclists came from the Canadian Women’s Championships in Afghanistan last October in Switzerland, but none of them won any medals due to a lack of training.

Ferishta Mehreen, another Afghan cyclist who lives far away, told CTVNews, “I wasn’t ready and I don’t have a bike, I still have to compete, and I think we all did very well.” in Calgary. .ca during a telephone interview. .

Getting used to the long and cold Calgary winters was another challenge for these riders. But despite all the obstacles she’s been through, one thing that bothers her is the situation of women back home in Afghanistan.

In addition to preventing women and girls from playing sports, the Taliban also prevented women from working in the government and from going to schools and universities. According to UNICEF, three million girls have been denied secondary education since August 2021.

The group also in December ordered all foreign and domestic NGOs in Afghanistan to suspend hiring women.

“The world must do more for Afghan women. They are going through so much. As a human being, it is my responsibility to raise my voice for Afghan women and I will do so wherever I go.”

However, after a year-long hiatus from the sport, the cyclists say they are excited about their next adventure and want to inspire other Afghan women to fight for their freedom.

Mehreen added, “I am trying to do my best to fulfill my life’s dream that one day I will be able to compete in the Olympics.”

Coverage of this story was funded by the Mita-funded Afghan Resident Journalists Project.

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