A group of Afghan girl footballers have flown into the UK, the culmination of an extraordinary rescue effort that began after the Taliban seized power.
The costly operation brought together an unlikely cast of characters, from Muslim sports-people to spies, philanthropists, and a Hasidic rabbi.
The girls – aged between 13 and 19 – arrived from Pakistan overnight.
Their flight was chartered by a Jewish aid organisation and was paid for by the US star, Kim Kardashian-West.
“It’s Mission Accomplished,” said Khalida Popal, former manager of Afghanistan’s national women’s team, who co-ordinated their rescue from Denmark. “I’m so happy and so proud of these girls. They were traumatised. They’ve been through so much and managed to stay strong. Now they can start a new life and breathe freedom.”
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, President & Founder of the Jewish aid group, the Tzedek Association, expressed his relief. “As the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, a time when righteous non-Jewish people stepped up to the plate to help save so many Jewish people, I know in my heart that we must be there for others in their time of need at a time when their very lives are at risk,” he said.
The teenagers, mostly from the Afghan provinces, all feared for their lives when the Taliban captured their cities. Some of their families had received death threats.
“People were searching houses for them” Ms Popal told the BBC.
Terrified, they made their way to Kabul and were due to be evacuated to the Gulf state of Qatar at the end of August.
They were almost within sight of the airport when they were pulled off their buses because of security warnings. Two hours later, the airport was struck by a suicide bomb, killing more than 180 people.
So they went into hiding.
10 days later, following intense lobbying on their behalf, they were given the personal permission of the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, to cross the border.
But they only had temporary Pakistani visas.
With the clock ticking, a frantic effort to find them a new home began.
The girls had the support of Leeds United Football club chairman Andrea Radrizzani. They also had the ear of the UK government – through a chain of former interpreters for the British military and influential veterans. Last month, they were granted visas.
But they still needed funding to get them on a flight. When that finally came together, a charter was laid on, which flew the group of 130 people into Stansted airport last night. They are due to spend the next 10 days in quarantine.
“We’ve achieved our first goal,” Khalida Popal told the BBC. “The next goal is to work with footballing organizations to help them start new careers in football.”
“So many people were involved,” Ms Popal said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”
In separate rescue missions, the women’s national team was flown to Australia as part of the mass Western evacuation in August. And members of Afghanistan girls’ team were given asylum in Portugal.
But dozens of young Afghan female footballers remain stuck in Afghanistan, desperate for a way out.