Rozma Ghafouri has been recognized by the UN for her pioneering work. (IranWire)

By Florencia Montaruli

January 13, 2021

To this day there remains no sport in the world, and particularly not in Latin America, that arouses as much passion and ambivalence in its respective audiences as football does.

In some quarters, football penetrates well beyond the sporting frontiers and leaves an imprint on people’s hearts and minds. Impossible for an Argentine not to remember the collective joy when the national team won the 1978 World Cup –when, for a brief moment, the crimes, atrocities, torture and disappearances by the military dictatorship then-engaged in destroying society from the inside out vanished from the sights of millions of Argentines.

Further back in time, Brazil still recalls the tragedy when the country lost the 1950 World Cup final against Uruguay. There were confirmed records of Brazilians committing suicide because of the pain of not being world champions. Could it be that soccer stirs something primitive in the human subconscious? Could it be that, for all of Latin America, a rolling ball is synonymous with unbridled passion and potential?

Far from the shores of Latin America, more than 14,000 kilometres away and in a different hemisphere, refugee women in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz found that football was one means to help youngsters overcome their vulnerable position and kick-start a new life. Football in Iran, where the regime still suppresses and silences its people, is an avenue to new opportunities.

What could possibly move a woman, exiled and exposed to a sexist Islamist regime that suffocates its citizens, to hedge her bets on football as a way out for the new generation? The Argentine journalist Tomás Padilla decided to find out after reading about a woman named Rozma Ghafouri, and her incredible life story. The following is a summary of what Padilla learned about Rozma’s passion for offering soccer as a “refuge” for children who have lost all hope.

Rozma Ghafouri was almost six years old when the Taliban invaded her native Kapisa in northeast Afghanistan. War broke out soon after and she was forced into exile with her parents and siblings. As refugees in a very humble house in Iran, the family worked day and night to survive.

Like many girls her age, the young Rozma found in sports a means to take out her daily frustrations. She wanted to play football, even though she was not supposed to because she was female. Her father told her girls were not “made” for football, that she had to learn how to sew clothes instead. But her mother encouraged her to do what made her happy.

“I realized that I would not go to school like everyone else, because I needed to earn money,” Ghafouri later recalled. From that moment on, she had vowed to try to organize Afghan-only games, to get people smiling, not just worrying about work.

Today, 23 years later, Ghafouri is a winner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Nansen Refugee Award in Asia, for her work with refugee children in Iran.

The Youth Initiative Fund: From the Streets to the Classroom

“Sports is the best means I have found to help children open up to a vulnerable situation,” Ghafouri told the UNHCR. “After each training session, we talk about anything, until they feel comfortable telling me about the problems they face at home.”

In 2015, the now-football coach and youth advisor founded the Youth Initiative Fund (YIF) in Shiraz, with the support of UNHCR and Iran’s Office of Foreign Affairs and Immigrants. The YIF now supports around 400 children a year, most of whom either do not attend school or have already left. It seeks to  use sports as a vehicle to reduce school dropout rates and increase enrollment in literacy and numeracy courses, as well as promoting family counselling.

The YIF’s main objective, Ghafouri says, is “to identify vulnerable boys and girls who are forced to work”. Football is a way to get closer, to get them to trust their peers and coaches enough to talk about their personal issues. “The most transformative aspect is that many of the children who could not go to school before now can. There were street children who started with us six years ago, ended up playing for the Afghan national team, and have become a symbol for others”

Every weekday, YIF volunteers walk through the neighborhoods of Shiraz to talk with the parents of those Afghan children who have never attended or stopped attending school, seeking to establish a relationship with them and invite their children to practice sports. Most of these youngsters do not receive an education because they have to work to support their parents, and many of the girls are married off early. As a result of Ghafouri’s program, many have since started attending school.

THE YIF’s short-term objective is now to extend the project to other Iranian provinces. According to the UNHCR (which receives statistics from the Iranian government), in 2014 there were more than 950,000 Afghan refugees and 28,200 Iraqi refugees inside the country. Those who take part in the YIF’s activities are no longer only Afghan refugees but Iranians too.

In October 2020, Ghafouri was chosen as the Asian regional winner of the annual UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, which recognizes those who have sought to help forcibly displaced or stateless people and demonstrate “values of perseverance and commitment in the face of adversity”. The Nansen Prize is in honour of the Norwegian explorer, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen, who served as the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921.

What Does Football Mean to Refugees?

Goal Click Refugees was a series of testimonies and photographs featuring 25 refugees from around the world, published in June 2020 on FIFA’s website. It illustrates the importance of sport in breaking down barriers and generating hope.

“There are many people,” says Shegofa Hassani, a member of FIFA’s Football United program in Australia, “who still believe Afghan girls should not play sports. This gives us the opportunity to prove them wrong, as well as to stay active and socialize. I want more and more Afghan girls to dream big and fight for their dreams.”

“Playing football lifts my spirits up and strengthens my confidence,” says Maryam, a young Syrian woman who plays football at Zaatari refugee camp. “Beause I am a woman, I can be the person to change the perception that others have of women’s football, break the wall of shame.”

Mehdi Rakhshandeh, an Iranian refugee living in the UK, adds: “Football was especially important in my life as I settled down in my new environment in Middlesbrough. Every week I played with the MFC Foundation and that helped me meet people and improve my English. The club welcomed me with open arms and made me feel part of the community.”

Women’s Football in Afghanistan: A Source of Empowerment

By degrees, the Afghan community is coming to accept women’s football. But as with all behind-the-scenes conquests, there is a measure of struggle and controversy that must be borne. Under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women could not attend school, work, or play sports. But some continued to practice in secret. One of them was Khalida Popal, who played covertly at school with friends and, years later after the fall of the Taliban regime, would be one of the pioneers of the creation of a women’s national team.

One of the most divisive incidents in Afghan women’s football occurred as recently as 2018, when British newspaper The Guardian published the testimonies of several national team players who denounced criminal sexual, physical and verbal harassment between 2013 and 2018 by Keramuudin Karim, president of the country’s soccer federation and a man of huge influence. After learning about the complaint, others told their stories of abuse on social media under the hashtag #Voice4Voiceless. Finally, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) dismissed Karim’s appeal and ratified the ruling of the Adjudication Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee, which found him guilty and imposed a life penalty. At the time of writing, Karim remains on the run from Afghan authorities.

Rozma Ghafouri believes that football can be a “powerful tool” to enact change. She dreams of a world in which Afghan girls and boys have the same chance at success anywhere in the world, regardless of the obstacles they face along the way.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.