For Bibikhawa Zaki, whose orange football boots match her headscarf, training on the pitch is the highlight of her complicated life.
Like many fellow Afghan refugees in Tajikistan, the 25-year-old dreams of moving on from the poor Central Asian country to a new life in Canada.
A few months before the Taliban took Kabul in summer 2021, she and her family followed thousands of other Afghans across the mountainous border into neighboring Tajikistan.
“The Taliban attacked my sister-in-law. They issued death threats against my family. We had to leave,” the former English teacher told AFP.
“But when we play football, I’m happy. I don’t think about the other stuff,” she explained.
Bibikhawa Zaki trains with about 50 other young Afghan women at a club set up by her female compatriots in Vakhdat, about half an hour from the capital, Dushanbe.
Most of the country’s Afghan community live in the city, where lampposts and shop windows are plastered with small ads offering Tajiks jobs in Russia.
Although Tajikistan has been taking in Afghan refugees since the mid 1990s, they are not allowed to live in any of the major cities.
The government fears the extremist Taliban’s return to power in Kabul will lead to destabilization at home.
It is the Taliban’s strongest critic in Central Asia and has, for years, had to contend with numerous cross-border skirmishes involving Afghan jihadists.
Bibikhawa Zaki is from the most recent influx of refugees. Others have been navigating Tajikistan’s red tape for years.
The United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR estimates around 10,000 Afghan refugees, often extremely poor, live in Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
- Waiting –
In a country that struggles to provide the basics for its own population, Afghans are often forced to fend for themselves.
Asserting your rights is not always easy in Tajikistan, where freedom of expression is strictly limited.
And they cannot rely on help from their embassy, which still represents the government chased from power by the Taliban in 2021.
Colonel Boimakhmad Radjazoda, who heads the refugee department in the Tajik interior ministry, insists that his country is doing all it can for these displaced people.
“Refugees have many of the same rights Tajik citizens,” he told AFP.
“They have access to medical care, we’ve opened a school for Afghans and we can provide them with clothes, food and medicines.”
But many refugees say they cannot afford the $10 monthly fee to send their children to school, so they organize lessons among themselves.
While they are grateful for the welcome they have received in Tajikistan, most do not plan to make a new life here.
Their dream is to reach Canada, which has committed to taking in 40,000 Afghans.
But the wait is long.
“We’ve applied to go to Canada but we still haven’t had a reply,” Bibikhawa Zaki said ruefully.
She doesn’t have a job so while she waits she plays football — three training sessions a week –- and reads in English to improve her language skills.
Jawid Sharif’s family survives on the money they earned from selling their house in Kabul.
Tamkin, one of his five children, is also a keen footballer and wants to study art.
“One day, I’ll be a great artist,” she says, pointing to one of her paintings hanging on the kitchen wall.
It’s a portrait of the “Elvis of Afghanistan” — singer and national hero Ahmad Zahir.
by Bruno KALOUAZ
©️ Agence France-Presse