My journey from playing football in Afghanistan to founding ‘Girl Power’

I used my love of sports to inspire young Afghan girls to dream big. Now, the organisation I started is providing opportunities to refugee women and girls all over the world.


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In the heart of Afghanistan, a nation scarred by war and renowned for its challenges, especially for women, I discovered solace and empowerment through sports. I am Khalida Popal, co-founder and former player with the Afghanistan women’s national football team. Today, I lead the Girl Power Organization, a beacon of hope and empowerment for women and girls worldwide.

Growing up in a male-dominated and war-torn environment, sports emerged as a potent tool for activism. We, as women, harnessed the strength of sports, particularly football, to break stereotypes, and inspire young girls to dream beyond the confines of their circumstances.

In our journey, football consistently proved its ability to unite people, irrespective of language, religion, or political views. On the pitch, everyone shared a common language of love and unity, erasing the divisions that plagued our society.

Football became an escape – an opportunity to taste freedom, even if only for a few hours during our training sessions. It provided a platform to create a sisterhood, defying societal constraints that restricted women to kitchens rather than sports arenas. This movement led to the formation of the Afghanistan women’s national football team, marking a historic moment for women in the country.

Khalida Popal, Founder and CEO of the Girl Power Organization, © Dana Roesiger

I used football to give a voice to the voiceless and to challenge societal norms, but eventually I faced threats that forced me to leave my country and become a refugee in Europe.

In the years that followed, the word “refugee” became a weighty title. Like countless others, I found myself navigating the maze of challenges that come with integrating into a new culture and country.

My past – its language, customs, and the warmth of my community – became distant memories. It was a profound loss, akin to shedding a part of myself. The loss extended beyond the personal realm and into the professional when I could not find a place for the education and skills I had brought from my homeland. Language barriers and the struggle for my qualifications to be recognised hindered my efforts to rebuild a sense of purpose and identity through meaningful employment.

Misunderstandings, prejudice, and discrimination threatened to isolate me, and others like me, from the very communities we yearned to call home.

Despite these hurdles, sports once again played a pivotal role in helping me establish my own community. It provided me with a platform to share my learnings and experiences, enabling me to give back to the country that had offered me shelter and safety.

Drawing on my experiences from Afghanistan and my knowledge of using football for development, the Girl Power Organization was born in Denmark, continuing the mission that began in Afghanistan.

Khalida leads a workshop for young refugee and ethnic minority coaches at the Girl Power Leadership Academy. © Dana Roesiger

Refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran participate in a Girl Power workshop. © Dana Roesiger

Khalida and workshop participants listen to a presentation at the Girl Power Leadership Academy. © Dana Roesiger

Today, Girl Power provides mentoring, education, and sporting opportunities to refugee women and girls, aiding their integration into their new homes in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. The organisation fosters a strong sisterhood ecosystem, connecting women worldwide.

It is a movement led by outspoken, bold, and rebellious women. We champion human rights, speak out against injustice, and amplify the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves. Challenging the status quo, experimenting, and embracing our differences, we take pride in being agents of positive change.

One of our proudest achievements was the successful campaign to evacuate the Afghanistan senior women’s national football and youth teams, together with their family members, in 2021, during a tumultuous period in the country.

Young refugee and ethnic minority coaches who attended the Girl Power Leadership Academy in December 2023 pose for a group photo. © Dana Roesiger

By sharing my personal journey, I aim to inspire others who have undergone similar journeys and to use my story as an example of how refugees can contribute and add value to their new communities when given the opportunity and support to feel a sense of belonging. I hope that stories like mine reach policymakers and governing bodies. My aspiration is for them to focus and invest, not in building barriers and walls to keep refugees out, but in fostering more inclusive societies.

I discovered my purpose through football, and I’ve been utilising my platform to play a meaningful role in the world, actively engaging in finding solutions while acknowledging the challenges I face as a woman and as a refugee.

If you are reading this and haven’t yet found your purpose in life, consider taking this simple step: reflect on causes or issues that matter to you, ones you are passionate about. Then, contemplate how your passion can contribute to positive change and solutions within the community where you live. By aligning your passion with a greater purpose, you can embark on a journey that not only fulfills you, but also makes a meaningful impact on the world around you.

This article was written for UNCHR by Khalida Popal, Founder & CEO of the Girl Power Organization.

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