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UT to help resettle Afghan women athletes after they fled the Taliban

Nineteen women basketball players will soon call Knoxville home after fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Credit: WBIR

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — University of Tennessee's Center for Sport, Peace and Society, the FIFA international soccer association and the Equality League are all working together to help resettle 19 women athletes in Knoxville. 

They are coming to Knoxville in pursuit of two things: education and basketball. The process has taken more than a year.

Two of the women leading the charge are Dr. Sarah J. Hillyer, the director of UT's center as well as a former UT Basketball star Michelle Marciniak.

The women arriving in Knoxville range from 16 years old to 62 years old. They will all also have one thing in common — their passion for basketball. 

They left their country at the start of the Taliban takeover since they were being persecuted for their talents and passion for shooting hoops. They left with only a backpack holding their belongings and dreams. 

"Their families told them, you have to go ... because if you don't go, we have no hope for a future," Hillyer said. "If you do go, we have hope. But if you stay, we will certainly be executed. So you have to go."

The women's passion for the game is their future in America, but not only for them. They will also play for their families still in their homeland. 

The group of women first arrived in Qatar after fleeing. There, they hoped to head to Canada to resettle. But soon Canada rescinded their visa verification letter. This left the girls displaced. Albania took them in as a temporary home. 

After hearing the athletes' stories, Hillyer and Marciniak felt called to help. 

"When we learned of their stories and got to know them, we thought if there's any place in the world that should stand up for them and make them feel welcome and give them hope for a better future ... It should be the University of Tennessee," Hillyer said. "And what an incredible way to honor Pat Summit's legacy and her commitment to women's empowerment through basketball and education."

For the Vols community at home, Pat Summitt's legacy and words resonate. Her values of people first stay in the hearts of those who knew her the best. 

"Pat cared more about people than winning and that one thing that I took from her, which is [that] you can win a bunch of games, you can lose a bunch of games, but who are you really, who are you as a person is what you are doing for the people left behind," Marciniak said.

Malalai Anwari is a mother, wife and athlete. She will be resettling in the next few months. 

"I'm leaving everything back and starting new things and a new life," Amwari said. 

She and the other women have played the sport for years. In a country where women have few rights, the sport has served as their saving grace

"They were quickly finding that it gave them a sense of confidence, efficacy, and control of their own bodies because they didn't have control, because of the things they had to wear, and that they always had to go out with a male in the family," Hillyer said. 

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