Being the defender

CW: The following story contains a detailed account of a refugee experience. This includes: 

  • The separation of a family 
  • War themes 
  • Displacement 

Mursal is a young woman who loves adventuring, playing soccer and watching Netflix’s ‘Wednesday.’ She played for Afghanistan’s Women’s National Soccer Team and now plays for Melbourne Victory’s Afghan Women’s Team. Having previously given talks with UNICEF, she is now one of CMY’s new Shout Out speakers. Her story is one of surviving and escaping an unimaginable situation and despite everything defending yourself, your people and your loved ones. 

Mursal grew up in Afghanistan with her parents, her three sisters and two brothers. She was a studious person, graduating high school at the age of 15. She also completed a Diploma of Graphic Design before she was 18. At first, Mursal was quite a shy teenager. She found it hard to speak up and often felt anxiety. But then, she found soccer.  

Mursal played for Afghanistan’s Women’s National Soccer Team from 2017 until 2021. She played every conceivable position on the beautiful game’s pitch from goalkeeper, to attack, to defence. A particular highlight in her career was an Under 17’s match in India where her team won 3-0.  

“I felt like out of 34 million people in Afghanistan, we are the ones representing the country and out of all those women who are back home, mostly the women who are in the countryside, they weren’t allowed to go to sports,” says Mursal.  

“I cried. It was my first time at a foreign country hearing my national anthem and crying out of pride that I am the one representing those people.” 

Sports, it turned out, was the perfect catalyst to help Mursal come out of her shell.  

“I love the game, so I can play any position that I can go for,” Mursal says. 

“I found defence really interesting because, you know, you are the last hope of your team and you’re the one holding the most pressure. As an introverted person who loves to care about every single person around me, I would love to be the heart of defence.” 

Mursal’s life changed on 15 August 2021, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The news quickly spread around the country and it reached Mursal when she was studying at her local cafe. Anxiety about what the Taliban could do to women and especially sports people hit Mursal and her teammates and she knew that she needed to escape the country. After receiving some Visas from the team’s former Captain, Khalida Popal, Mursal and her team spent many anxious days trying to enter Kabul’s already overcrowded International Airport.  

“I was panicking at the time and my mum grabbed my hand. She sat with me and then she said, ‘look, girl, it’s either now or never,’” says Mursal.  

Mursal was eventually extracted from Kabul by Australian soldiers on a military airplane after spending several cold nights in a sewer pipe. She was separated from her family in the chaos and they made safe passage to Iran with financial help from Mursal. Upon arriving in Australia, she was taken from the plane to 15 days of Hotel Quarantine. Mursal, who was still very young at the time, had to step up for and defend her teammates, even in a time when she didn’t have her own stability.  

“I had to take responsibility of our Under 18 players,” Mursal says. 

“This was a tough journey for me. Being a teenager and becoming an adult all of a sudden, becoming a bread winner for your family, going through lots of things that no one else has gone through and not being able to enjoy those years of your life that you were [supposed] to enjoy.” 

“I was a fan of studying and education, especially for women and then all of a sudden, I lost it.” 

Mursal had thought she left her dreams of playing football professionally behind in Afghanistan, but an opportunity to play for Melbourne Victory’s Afghan Women’s Team came her way. She was eventually voted the team’s Co-Captain by her teammates.  

Mursal found out about CMY through a leadership workshop at Professional Footballers Australia. After learning about CMY, she was inspired to sign up for Shout Out and Seat at the Table, a leadership immersion program that addresses the underrepresentation of young women from refugee and migrant backgrounds in leadership roles. Through SAT, Mursal was assigned a mentor who completely changed her outlook on life. 

“Sometimes I used to get like, disappointed and say, ‘nah, I’m not gonna become anyone. Never ever.’ But then, throughout this six months of program, I found out…I will become someone,” says Mursal. 

“I can confidently say that it was the best thing that I did that opened lots of doors for me in terms of networking, in terms of finding who I am and what abilities I have.” 

Mursal is now studying a Double Degree of Sports and Business and has ambitions to enter Australian politics. She wants to advocate for and defend refugees who enter Australia like her. She particularly wants to fund financial support for asylum seekers, instead of funding refugee camps and detention centres.  

“Why would we spend money to provide arms instead of providing peace? Because refugees are a product of war. I am a product of war,” says Mursal.  

“To be honest, I want to step into politics because of positive change and to be a voice of community, like an actual voice of this community that I think we never had.” 

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