They arrived Wednesday morning at dawn, after a journey of 11 months. A journey to which they had to say goodbye to their loved ones and their country, with the promise of being able to return one day, without fear.

They are 70 Afghans, almost all from the Hazara ethnic group and linked to the cycling world:they arrived at L’Aquila after landing at Fiumicino airport with a humanitarian flight that brought 300 people to our country.

In Abruzzo they are now waiting to start their new life through a path built especially for them. The rescue was made possible thanks to a group of people who heard the cry for help from the cyclists who in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan had been condemned because they were considered unclean. Almost everyone ran by bicycle, some were part of the Afghan national team, others ran with the teams from Bamyan, Kabul and Herat and they had a common dream: to feel like athletes as much as their male friends and to race in Europe and maybe make it to the Olympics.

Last August, some girls managed to escape to different countries thanks to humanitarian flights departing from Kabul airport. But after the Abbey Gate bombing, everything fell apart and almost all of the Afghan women cyclists were captured.

The chain to their rescue began from contact with the journalist Francesca Monzone, who had begun to build a relationship of trust with them in 2015. After securing an initial group of 20 athletes to be evacuated, the desperate search began for someone who could save all the girls.

The call for help was immediately taken up by Sylvan Adams and his team, Israel-Premier Tech, which also thanks to IsraAid NGO they have set up a real rescue team. A basic help was provided by the cyclists of the men’s national team, the same ones who escorted the cyclists during their training when they were stoned or someone tried to hit them with cars. A first group of over 120 girls crossed the border by bus during the night on their way to Doha. Day after day, however, the transfer became more and more complicated because the Taliban intercepted the buses and made them go back. Meanwhile, Adams and IsraAid also sent a plane with over 160 people to Switzerland, among them several cyclists who were welcomed in that country thanks to the UCI.

There was, however, a large group which continued to remain hidden, and from whom any attempt to escape had gone up in smoke. At that time the plans were all revised and the only possible, but also dangerous, escape route was through Pakistan, which let out the Afghans holding visas. Through a well-organized network of international aid, the girls are brought out of their country in private cars, driven by drivers perfectly prepared for any kind of scenario. When the girls got word, there was a greeting with the Italian journalist and family members, and then the phone was turned off and on again only after crossing the border. Many pictures were taken in front of the barbed wire, with the first smiles and a heart drawn with the hands and then running towards Islamabad, then going back and taking other girls.

One of the most difficult trips was Somaya and Hamid and their two 9 month and 2 year old children.They were under the eye of the Taliban and there were no cars to cross the border, and after two days of hiding in the mountains of Bamyan, they called the Italian journalist and told her that they had nothing to lose and that they would reach the border alone.

There is a selfie taken by Hamid embracing his wife and two children, it is the last photo taken in Afghanistan and sent to the journalist to greet her: then two days of silence to turn the phone back on after the border when waiting on them, he was a man from the organization who escorted everyone to Islamabad.

A similar story is Muktar and his sister two skiers helped by a group in France and who crossed the border with their mother thanks to the courage of Qurban, a cyclist from Bamyan who lost his entire family in the fire of the Taliban.

In 70 they managed to cross the border and among them also the last cyclists belonging to the Mohammadi family, founders of the first cycling team in Bamyan and rescued in Germany last November. Among them is Mahnaz, the youngest of the group of cyclists, who speaks perfect English and has started studying Italian in recent months.

Mahnaz he wants to cycle and dreams of becoming a doctor, while his cousin Zohra hopes to become a lawyer to help other Afghan women. Today they are all in Italy, but their journey was not easy, and even though there were funds to pay all the expenses, they had to wait many months before getting visas.

So Francesca Monzone started knocking and writing to anyone until one day, when she arrived at the UNHCR offices, she was told who to contact. Fundamental to this story was the meeting with Sandra Sarti and Rosanna Oliva de Concilis, two former government officials who immediately embraced the story of Afghan women cyclists by offering support thanks to their association “Rete per le Parità”, which had a specific inclusion program for Afghan women. Rosanna Oliva de Concilis, was the first Italian female prefect, and thanks to her appeals and her struggles, the public competitions were opened to women, which in the 1960s were reserved only for men.

Another door that the Italian journalist knocked on was that of FCEI, Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy and signatory of the agreement on humanitarian corridors from Afghanistan with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The turning point has come at the Farnesina to open Italy’s doors to Afghan girls thanks to the help of Deputy Minister Sereni, who is aware of the vulnerability of this group.

There were flights, scholarships and the possibility of entering Italy, but there was no safe place that could accommodate the whole group. Thus came the solidarity in the city of L’Aquila, the same one that welcomed the Ukrainian national cycling team. Mayor Biondi responded immediately to the request for help and an agreement was signed between the municipality and FCEI, leader of the protocol, with the support of Rete per le Parità, Israel-Premier Tech and IsraAid.
Since they are sports, the support of CONI and Federciclismo could not be missing, especially with President Malagò, who followed the whole story of these girls. In L’Aquila to act as supervisors there will be the president of Coni Abruzzo Imbastato and the president of the regional committee of FCI Marrone.

The group arrived in Italy thanks to the funds of many private sponsors, almost all foreigners who wanted to save these athletes and also worked to offer them a well-structured path that will help them build their future.
The 70 Afghans arrived at Fiumicino airport on Wednesday on the Open Arms plane paid for by Sylvan Adams and his Israel-Premier Tech. Adams came to Rome in person to meet the girls he had begun helping almost a year earlier and he would give everyone a hug, followed by the phrase: “Now you are finally free”. Adams, who has also helped Ukrainian athletes, has promised that he will return to Italy and visit them in L’Aquila, where the mayor has proposed an official meeting.

The boys and girls asked to be able to return to racing soon, because the dream for many of them was to ride in Europe, where there are Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. They know Pogacar and also Van Aert and hope to participate in international competitions one day.Fedeciclismo has offered its support, it will help them participate in national races, as it has done with Ukrainian cyclists.

The new adventure in L’Aquila has begun for all of them and the mayor Biondi offered to host the houses that the people of L’Aquila lived in after the earthquake. New pages in the history of this group have yet to be written, but the gesture of solidarity and altruism was not lacking: as soon as they arrived at their homes, everyone found gifts and food offered by the Abruzzi, who in this way wanted to welcome them.

Living in Italy will not be easy for them because they left their families in Afghanistan, but the solidarity network does not stop and the next goal will be to help them find their loved ones and try to bring them to our country as well.

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