Fatima Yousufi’s harrowing journey from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to Australia

Leadership

Fatima Yousufi, captain of Afghanistan’s women’s national football team, spoke exclusively at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit about the huge traumas suffered by her team when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021 and their subsequent rescue and relocation to Australia.
Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s football team captain Fatima Yousufi speaks during the Spotlight on Resilience talk at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit. Image: Getty

Growing up in Afghanistan, Fatima Yousufi received her education and had dreams of getting into business, while building her professional soccer career. She was playing for the Afghanistan National Women’s team when the Taliban took over the country in 2021.

“I never imagined I would be a footballer or playing for the national team, being one of the women and girls representing Afghanistan.

“My mother supported me to go for the education first, and then when I started to go for football…[I was] hiding it a lot for months. I’m really grateful… I had the support of my Mum to say, ‘you can do it,’” she told Forbes Australia reporter and moderator Jane Lindhe.

But everything changed when the Taliban took control. Professional athletes and educated women were seen as a direct threat to the regime, and the players’ lives were at risk. Yousufi and her teammates’ dreams were destroyed in an instant, leaving her feeling like “a dead person with no soul”.

“I was thinking, it is not possible to takeover such a large country, but it was like a blink. I was heading to training and one of my teammates was texting on the group chat: ‘it’s true. The Taliban is taking over. Go back to your home.”

Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s football team captain Fatima Yousufi speaks to Jane Lindhe during the Spotlight on Resilience talk at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit. Image: Getty for Forbes Australia

On the evening of August 21, Yousufi and her teammates were part of the largest rescue of athletes in history. They waited for hours at the airport, with no guarantee they would make it onto the aircraft carrier. During that time, Yousufi was separated from her mother, father and little sister. While Yousufi and three of her siblings made it to Melbourne, however her mother, father, and sister spent time in hiding in Afghanistan and are now seeking asylum in Pakistan.

“[At the airport] I left my family outside and I remember my Mum was like, crying and screaming, “why are young going?” I was shouting back, the rest of my team were watching us. I said ‘don’t cry, you make me weak. That was the last time I saw them. I regret it all the time. Why didn’t I at least say goodbye.”

Eighteen months after the rescue, the Afghanistan National Women’s Team have settled in Melbourne and the team have been sponsored by A-league team, Melbourne Victory Football Club.  They’re beginning to play and win games again.

Yousufi told delegates at the summit her main advice to women facing adversity is to “never, ever give up”.

“When you’re trying to do the first step and trying something new, it will always be hard,” she said. “You will make a change that you can never imagine. There’s always an open door.”

More from Women's Summit