Tuesday 20 June 2023, 11:00

I am so much more than just a ‘refugee’

  • To mark World Refugee Day 2023, we meet one of the female football players forced to flee Afghanistan in 2021

  • Sodaba is now living in the USA

  • Her connection to the beautiful game gave her a new start in life

At the age of 26, Sodaba is living in the United States. She is writing a book, studying to be a dentist, working in a dental clinic as an assistant, searching for a car to go with her recently-acquired US driver’s licence, and planning the next stage of her life as a football coach. She is also a refugee from Afghanistan – who fled Kabul in October 2021 in fear of her life – but her status as a refugee, she insists, should be far from her defining characteristic. Back in October 2021, Sodaba was forced to make a heart-breaking decision; stay in Afghanistan and face losing her freedom and potentially her life. Or use the window of opportunity her connections to football had provided and flee to the unknown, but leave everything and everyone she had ever known behind. Upon hearing the news that her older brother had been killed by the Taliban due to his ties with the United States Army, with whom he worked as an interpreter, it was a decision she felt she had no choice but to make. “Being a refugee is never easy, it is never a scenario that anyone would want to find themselves in,” Sodaba said, speaking from her new permanent home in Houston, Texas. “Why would anyone choose a scenario where they must leave their home, their family, all their friends and loved ones – to go somewhere we don’t know, and where we don’t know if we will be accepted, or able to work or integrate. When your life is at risk, you have no choice – but it is important people realise that nobody chooses to be a refugee.”

The story of Sodaba - group photo in Qatar

Sodaba was part of a group of more than 150 Afghan refugees connected to women’s sport in the country who FIFA helped evacuate from Kabul to Doha. The women and their families were all deemed to have been in critical danger due to their links with women’s sport. Since then, FIFA has supported the group in Albania under temporary protection. Many have already been permanently relocated to Europe and North America, and football’s global governing body is committed to assisting until permanent resettlement is confirmed for the entire group. Among the evacuees were players from the senior, U-23, U-17 and U-15 Afghan women’s teams, together with their family members. There were also female match officials, administrators, women’s football coaches, prominent human rights defenders and female basketball players within the group. Sodaba, a former player with the women’s U-17 national team, recalled how it was a terrifying, and heart-breaking time. “We nearly didn’t even make it out of the airport, because the Taliban stopped us and told us it would be impossible for a group of 25 young women to leave the country without male guardians,” she said.

The story of Sodaba Khinjani

“We were all so scared, because if they wouldn’t let us on to that plane we were all sure they would arrest us, or kill us. We were so fearful for our lives. Eventually I was able to call FIFA, who spoke to some people of authority, and we were eventually allowed onto the plane. We were all so relieved, and sad. It was an incredibly emotional moment.” Joyce Cook, CBE, OBE, and then FIFA’s Chief Social Responsibility & Education Officer, led the operation to evacuate the women from Afghanistan and said at the time: “This is a human story, a human effort with people everywhere that care deeply about these courageous young women and girls. I think any human being that gets this close to the tragedy – to meet the girls, to hear their stories; stories of heartbreak and loss, but also stories of exceptional strength and determination – cannot help but feel an immense responsibility.” Fast-forward 18 months and, following an interim period in Albania while awaiting clearance to permanently resettle in the United States. Sodaba is excited at the opportunities that now await her and the other members of the group, following the ongoing support and assistance from FIFA. Before fleeing Afghanistan, she was studying to be a dentist and has now resumed her studies, which she carries out in the evenings online. She hopes to save enough money, or acquire a scholarship to eventually attend medical school.

“Football gave me everything: fitness, friends, routine and community in Afghanistan. Thanks to my connection to the national team at the Federation in Afghanistan and thanks to FIFA, it has also given me a second chance at life here in America.”


Within days of arriving in America she had secured herself a job working as a dental assistant in a local clinic. Eleven days after arriving she passed her tests and acquired her US driver’s license, and she is now saving money for a car. She is also hoping to get back into football as soon as possible. To help young women and girls, many even younger than herself who have been through similar things, find the same sort of joy through sport that she enjoyed growing up in Afghanistan. “Football gave me everything,” she said. “It gave me fitness, friends, routine and community while I was in Afghanistan – and thanks to my connection to the national team at the Federation in Afghanistan, and thanks to FIFA, it has also given me a second chance at life here in America.” Despite the trials and tribulations she has already faced in her 26 years, Sodaba’s outlook is overwhelmingly positive, without a hint of self-pity. Although the pain of separation from her mother and two younger siblings is clear on her face at times; she is determined to look ahead, to fresh opportunities, and to support her family back home.

The story of Sodaba - poster

She also harbours strong feelings about the word ‘refugee’ – and on World Refugee Day, had one plea. “We are all people,” she said passionately. “We are living here and contributing. I came here to work and to work hard. To become a dentist and to help people. We are not just ‘refugees’, we are people. I pay taxes and I want to help the community that has welcomed me.” She continued: “There are millions like me all around the world, who didn’t choose the situations we find ourselves in. The majority of people I encounter are very nice, but I just hope that one day all those that may choose not to welcome us can find it in their hearts to look past our status, and just look at the person.” Of her ongoing relationship with Joyce Cook – who now works as a Senior Advisor to FIFA President Gianni Infantino on a new project to tackle abuse across sport – Sodaba, visibly emotional, said: “In life a person does not have to be your biological mother, to be your mother. Joyce is my - and all of the women she helped save - second mother. She saved our lives, it’s that simple – and I am forever grateful.”

We are all people. We are living here and contributing. I came here to work and to work hard. To become a dentist and to help people. We are not just ‘refugees’. I pay taxes and I want to help the community that has welcomed me.