Rukhsar Habibzai’s journey to Roanoke started on a bicycle in Kabul and ended in an airport terminal.
Her eyes flowed with tears when she arrived at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport on Jan. 21, when she embraced Nicola Cranmer, a woman she had known for two years but had never met in person.
Cranmer cried, too, as she hugged the young Afghan woman who was captain of Afghanistan’s first women’s cycling team until the Taliban regained power in her home country.
Now, Habibzai will ride for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24, a national cycling team that will be based in the Roanoke Valley for the next three years. Cranmer founded the team in 2005 and has trained young female athletes who have brought home 14 medals in the Olympics and Paralympics.
The team hopes to send cyclists to the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which inspired the “Twenty24” in the team’s name.
Habibzai, 23, wants to be one of those Olympic athletes, a lifetime goal that may be within reach, although not in the way she had hoped.
She was one of the many Afghans who fled her country as Kabul fell to the Taliban in August. Habibzai had received threats to her life from the Taliban on Instagram for being a female cyclist and activist.
Habibzai did not want to leave her home. She described her experience in a series of interviews conducted over several days in person and via text messaging.
With explosions all around Kabul and the Taliban targeting women activists, she had to escape.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban have increasingly restricted the rights of women and girls since the collapse of the U.S.-backed government. According to a joint study issued Jan. 18 with the Human Rights Institute at San Jose State University, the Taliban have placed limits on access to education, employment and even freedom of movement for Afghan women.
Habibzai said progress women had made in the past 20 years has been lost.
Full story; Roanoke Times