Away in Canada, Roya Samim keeps a candle lit for women's cricket in Afghanistan
Once, there was a future. Now, there is nothing. But still, "cricket can be a life for me", she hopes
Roya Samim has finally represented Afghanistan in a cricket match.
Virtually, that is.
Her avatar, so to say, turned out in an Afghanistan shirt, with her name, a number and the Afghanistan flag on it, for an e-sports contest organised by Global eSports that was an act of protest against the fact that there is no real national Afghanistan women's team. They played against Australia in a virtual women's World Cup final, and lost, just like all the teams that played Australia in the actual tournament.
But it was not about the result at all.
"Anyone who played that game showed that they stand with us," 28-year-old Samim told ESPNcricinfo from her home in Canada. "It's like a candle-light protest, but instead of lighting a candle, it's playing cricket. And it reminded people that we are here. We exist. I cannot play on the national ground but I played virtually, and when I see that, I am just proud of myself that 'Yes, I was in the Afghanistan team'."
Samim became interested, and involved, in cricket as an adult, playing with her siblings despite the raised eyebrows of those in their community, who said "cricket is not for you [girls/women]". Mostly, they played indoors in their home in Afghanistan, but found like-minded enthusiasts, and in 2019, began campaigning for a professional women's cricket set-up. At the time, Samim was working as a mathematics teacher, but "hoped that cricket could become my career".
By November 2020, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was convinced enough to roll out contracts for 25 women, with the plan that they would slowly progress to playing competitive fixtures.
Though the board indicated it would take time to get a women's team on the park, given the cultural and traditional norms in Afghanistan, Samim saw attitudes shifting around her.
"There were people that accepted us, appreciated us, and said we can do it," she said. "There were those who allowed their girls to go to the school, to go to cricket, and to go to other sports. It was becoming acceptable."
Spurred on by the pockets of support they got, the group of Afghan women trained as hard as they could. "We had professional coaches - the trainers for the international men's team, they trained us too," Samim recalled. "The ACB provided us with camps and three or four days of training in a week. We had two teams and we played against each other. We made ourselves professional.
"We spent seven or eight hours a day on cricket. First, we'd go to the ACB headquarters, then we'd go to the [Victory Cricket] academy, then we'd go to the fitness clubs. We wanted to be professional and we developed a lot."
In that time, there was some talk of organising matches against Oman or Bangladesh but that never came to fruition. In fact, nothing did. "Not even six months of our contract was complete when the Taliban came and everything was destroyed."
The Taliban's political takeover in Afghanistan began in May 2021, and escalated in August. In the space of a week, they claimed territory from Kunduz to Kabul and it was during that period that Samim decided she had to reconsider her options.
"At the time, the Taliban had more than two provinces and the big city of Herat. We were just afraid. I went to my cricket manager and said, 'If you know that cricket can go ahead and there will be peace, I will not leave', to which she replied, 'No, I cannot guarantee that, and the situation is not good for girls, so you should leave'. That's when we left Kabul," Samim said. "Three days afterwards, the Taliban took [over] Afghanistan. We were in a hotel and my team-mates called me and they cried.
"Everything - any dream, any wishes, any hope that me and my team-mates had - was gone. It was such a bad situation. When I remember now, I just want to cry."
While many of Samim's team-mates remained in Afghanistan, she made it to Canada with "only two pieces of clothing". Her brother and two sisters joined her, but she had another brother in a different country. She has had to adjust to many things, not least the "completely different weather", and has just been through a winter with "lots of ice and lots of snow" as well as the loss of both her cricketing and professional career.
"Women's education is really important for any country. If you want to change the future, you have to have women's education"Samim on how difficult it has been for women in Afghanistan
"It's really hard to explain how my life is. In Afghanistan, I had a good career and I had other things. I had friends, and my team," she said. "When people saw me, they were proud of me. Here, I had to start from zero. But I started because I feel that I am so strong, I can handle anything. I have some friends, I started playing cricket, I started working. I've got many friends. Everything is going normal. Well, I want to pretend it's normal."
Samim has stopped teaching and is now a settlement worker who aims to help other refugees. She laments the loss of learning opportunities for women in Afghanistan but hopes to keep the conversation alive by speaking about it.
"When I heard that the Taliban were not going to allow girls to go to school and I wasn't in Afghanistan to stand against it, I just cried," she said. "I can't do anything. It's so hard, because education - especially women's education - is really important for any country. If you want to change the future, you have to have women's education. It is really hard to see that we have completely lost our country. It's really hard but we can't do anything. I just raise my voice like this."
Similarly, she is also keeping her cricket ambitions burning and has found a place for it: Fredericton Cricket Club in New Brunswick. She hopes it will open doors for her to play elsewhere - including franchise leagues - and appeals to anyone who has an opportunity to provide it.
"Any small chances that are given to us as cricket players, we will be happy," she said. "Even a trial, if people want to give it to us, we are ready. I play cricket because I know that it's my future. Sometime in the future maybe I will get into a national team. I am really working for this. I am really training hard. I have lost everything, so cricket can be a life for me."
Samim aims to play for another five to seven years before turning her attention to coaching. With so much invested in cricket, she does not want to see Afghanistan shunned from the world stage. She supports the men's team in continuing to play rather than face any sanctions, and believes it brings joy to Afghans, wherever they might be.
"I would like the men to continue to play. I don't want the situation to have an effect on them. They are the only team that can bring some happiness in my country. It's only cricket, not other sports [do that]. It's good that they continue."
And she hopes one day she will be able to join them in real life in a match for Afghanistan.
"To go home now is impossible because the Taliban don't accept me and I don't accept them. But if anything changes - for example, maybe they will allow girls to play cricket - [and] if there are matches, I should be there. It's my country."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent