In the wake of the fall of Kabul, a nonprofit’s focus shifted almost overnight from empowering young women to evacuating them. Brunswick’s Preston Golson reports.
No Afghan woman had ever reached the 24,580-foot peak of Mount Noshaq—the country’s highest point—until Hanifa Yousofi stood atop it on August 10th, 2018. The feat spoke to the long-suppressed strength and potential of Afghanistan’s women, more than 70% of whom remained illiterate, and led many to wonder what other heights Afghan women might soon reach. “I did this for every single girl,” Yousofi said in a 2018 interview. “The girls of Afghanistan are strong and will continue to be strong.”
Yousofi’s summit was made possible by a fittingly named nonprofit, Ascend, which had both taught her how to climb—before joining Ascend, Yousofi had never done a sit-up—and covered the extensive costs involved in climbing one of the world’s highest mountains (Noshaq is 24,580 feet; Mount Everest is 29,031 feet). The nonprofit saw mountaineering as a way to instill mental and physical toughness in teenage girls navigating a society that demanded both—a way for them to be outside, rather than housebound with chores, and learn to become leaders of their own lives. Yousofi’s climb, which grabbed international headlines, showed how Ascend’s work could help shift the narrative of what the world believed Afghan women were capable of—and what Afghan women believed themselves capable of.
Almost exactly three years after Yousofi’s summit, the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan, a military victory cemented by the capture of Kabul, the country’s capital city, which was home to Ascend’s operations and its newly finished bouldering wall.
Overnight, the nonprofit’s focus shifted from empowering girls to evacuating them. “Ascend exists to create change, and we do that by empowering people to create change where they are—we never wanted to be a reason people left Afghanistan,” says Marina LeGree, Ascend’s founder and Executive Director. “But after the Taliban took over, we realized we had to do whatever we could to get our people out. It's so tremendously unfair for them. They're not going to be able to make change in that context. They're just mired in the suffering they didn’t cause and can’t fix.”
There has been a shocking amount of that suffering. The UN World Food Program estimates more than 22 million Afghans, or over half the population, now face “crisis-level hunger,” while 95% of the population lacks access to sufficient food. A separate forecast by the UN says that by mid 2022, 97% of Afghanistan’s population could be living in poverty. COVID-19 coupled with a drought have made an already dire situation even more so.
Ascend’s participants face yet another danger: the Taliban’s violent, repressive stance toward women. When previously in power, the group brutally restricted women’s access to healthcare, education and employment. Harrowing video footage captured the Taliban publicly executing a woman in 1999 at Kabul Stadium—the same stadium where, more than a decade later, teenage girls in Ascend’s program ran laps.
In a recent conversation with Brunswick’s Preston Golson, LeGree, an American who spent years in the country as a development worker and used her own savings to get Ascend off the ground, explained how amid unrelenting stress, heartbreak and chaos, the organization managed to help 135 people get out of Afghanistan.