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Climbing program helps Afghan women adjust to new life

Team Ascend talks escaping the Taliban, their love of climbing and what's next as women in the U.S.
woman climbing in gym
Posted at 12:36 PM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 12:36:01-05

Fighting an uphill battle is nothing new for the women of Afghanistan, especially for those who participate in sports. 

"It all started with the climbing," Sughra, a member of Ascend, said.

"It made me feel so powerful, so strong, that I was like yeah, I can fight even though society is against this thing, but I feel that it's right so I can fight it."

"Doing very rare sports like climbing was very unusual in Afghanistan," Mina, Ascend member, said.

"It was amazing. It was very new for me and very adventurous. I love the world I got into, the climbing world, and it's all because of Ascend."

Since 2014, Ascend has been working to empower young Afghan women through climbing.

So when the country was overtaken by Taliban forces in August 2021, the team says it was left with no choice but to evacuate as many of its girls as possible.

"It took a very short period of time when we saw what was happening in Afghanistan to realize we were going to have to completely pivot and focus all our energies on getting people out," Marina Legree, founder of Ascend, said.

"The girls were just absolutely desperate, and there was a real risk. 

The risk? A life of oppression and possible death, under a regime that is overturning two decades worth of rights gained by Afghan women.

"On the night 31st of August, I got call from a number in Texas telling me that I have to pack everything in five minutes and go to a station," Mina said.

"So, I just decided in that second that I'm going to take this risk. I have to do it because I cannot stay here anymore. I cannot stay in a place that I do not have my rights."

Since August, Ascend says it has evacuated roughly 140 people associated with the team.

With the help of climbers and folks interested in their work, Ascend was able to secure visas to seven different countries.

This process placed some of their team in North Carolina, including Sughra, Raihanna, and Mina.  

Now stateside, the girls are reconnecting with their passion for sports and exploring a new concept of safety. 

The thing that I'm experiencing here is that I don't have to worry about security," Sughra said.

"When I go out and I go somewhere, I don't have to care, you know, about the security, that there will be an explosion or something. But when I was in Afghanistan, in the morning when I was leaving home I had no idea whether I'll come back at night or not, and the people are doing that everyday."

But while the girls here in North Carolina apply for jobs, head to school and get back to climbing, the future remains incredibly uncertain for their families and Ascend teammates still in Afghanistan. 

"We're very keenly aware of the fact that all of our people left their families behind," Legree said.

"So our current participants are out, but their little sisters are all there, or their big sisters are there or whatever it may be. Everybody has family behind."

It's a heavy price each girl is having to pay. It cost me a lot. I left my family," Mina said. 

"The hardest part of this journey was leaving our family... that's where you love to be," Sughra said.

So what comes next for Ascend? Well as the situation deteriorates in Afghanistan,"They're facing a humanitarian disaster," Legree said.

"It's just the beginning of winter, it's going to be a long slog and a lot of people are literally starving."

Ascend leadership is trying to figure out how to safely restart its mission on the ground.

"Our mission is to empower girls through sports, so we're gonna keep doing that," Legree said.

"It's going to be a struggle to do it inside Afghanistan, but I feel like it's more important than ever, and we don't want to walk away from those girls."

As for the girls who made it out, they're speaking up.

"Peace in Afghanistan is a kind of big dream and big wish for everybody," Raihanna, Ascend member, said.

"Our responsibility is to raise our voice for them because now we are safe."

And they're speaking loudly for every girl back home and are working to reach new heights.

I am doing it because of myself, because I have so many dreams that are waiting for me to... make it a reality," Mina said.

"I'm going to become the best climber, and I'm going to say that it all started with Ascend."

This story was first reported by Meg Hilling at Newsy.