Pandemic deportation: Zabihullah Noori on escaping Afghanistan

Pandemic deportation: Zabihullah Noori on escaping Afghanistan

Why We Wrote This

The violence and heartbreak of an overland journey from Afghanistan to the West by an Afghan boxer ended in deportation home in an Iranian pandemic sweep. His intimate story is part of the Monitor’s interactive 21 in ’21 global report about how the pandemic affects a generation entering adulthood.

Andrew Quilty/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Zabihullah Noori enjoys the comfort of his bedroom in his family’s Kabul home. But home is not without conflict: He’s regularly kicked out, and has to sleep at the supermarket where he works, because his conservative Muslim parents disapprove of his boxing.

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January 22, 2021

Kabul, Afghanistan; and London

After 18 hours of walking, it was dark and dangerous as we approached a forgotten stretch of Iran’s border with Turkey. Our group of Afghans was hoping to slip across illegally, with no more trace than a moonlight shadow. We’d changed our course once already, forced to leave an easier, forested route after coming across bodies. 

Anxious – terrified, really – as we followed smugglers’ whispered instructions, we had broken into groups of 20 or 30, and clawed our way along treacherously steep slopes, with pockets of snow and piercing winter cold, all of us stumbling in the dark. My future depended on the success of finding a path to Europe in that moment last March.

I was leaving the oppressive hopelessness, poverty, and dream-killing abuse of my religiously conservative family in Kabul. And I was headed toward achieving the big, big dream of my life: to one day be a champion boxer – even an Olympic athlete.

Boxing is like prayers for me; without it, I can’t live.       

And that’s why I was on that uncertain odyssey trying to sneak past Turkish border police.


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But if not for COVID-19, I wouldn’t be back here in Afghanistan now, telling you what happened next in this tragedy.

The Turks saw us. And then, frozen, I thought: Is that shooting? Kak-kak, kak-kak-kak …

There were too many bullets! I can’t even count how many bullets! A friend was shot in the leg. Two others were shot dead, right there, in the darkness. I was panicking as I ran away.

Andrew Quilty/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

“My dream is to be a champion,” says Zabihullah Noori at his boxing gym in the Karte Char neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan. But his mother, who believes sports are “against Islam,” counters, “Boxing will never make you proud.”

My friends were killed – and, in that moment, my aspirations grew cold. In that moment I forgot why I left Kabul – how my family had never understood my passion for sports, which has gripped me from the age of 7.

“Boxing will never make you proud,” my mother scolded me. My parents said sports were “against Islam.” They often implored me to get a job to earn money for the family. They think boxing is useless, and they’d even lock me out of the house for the night when I went to the gym – often leaving me without food.  

In my bedroom here, taped to the pale lime-green wall, hang half a dozen medals earned in the boxing ring. On a cushion on the floor is a pair of red boxing gloves – won as a prize, and now used only for competition. And I have a blue pair, a gift from my coach, used for hard training, day after day. For me, they’re talismans of joy and potential. I’m good at boxing, but that doesn’t impress my family. 

So, late in 2019, just as the coronavirus was quietly starting its spread, I secretly left home with some friends and joined the wave of Afghan migrants heading to Europe.

Andrew Quilty/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After a harrowing emigration attempt to escape the hopelessness of his life in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Noori was deported from Iran back here to the streets of Kabul when the pandemic hit last spring.

The first step was paying 20,000 afghanis ($265) to a human trafficker and embarking on a grueling 10-day overland journey from Kabul to Tehran. Crammed into vehicles with too many young Afghan men, all of us united by our last-ditch desire to improve our futures, we suffered dizzying heat in the scalding deserts of Nimruz province, and aching, constant thirst and hunger. Add to that the gut-wrenching scene when the first two groups of us were arrested by Iranian border guards – and my guilty relief that my group got through after our smuggler made a call and paid a bribe. 

Arriving in Tehran, I had to work for six weeks in an electrical equipment factory while I waited for another smuggler to tell me the path to Turkey was ready.

Even though it was a period of extreme deprivation – not enough food and barely more than the clothes on my back – I called my family just to let them know I had left Afghanistan for good. Finally, they offered encouragement for my big plans, to go to the United States, or Australia or Mexico – places that welcome boxers. I planned to become a champion.

So, of course, when the smuggler promised that he’d get me to Turkey for $200 – next stop, Europe! – I was desperate to go. We drove four hours in a car, then took another ride in a truck, gaining altitude. But our long final journey on foot to the border was cut short by those Turkish bullets.

I was traumatized and had no choice but to return to Tehran to await another chance in an overcrowded Afghan camp.

That chance never came. It was already late March – Iran was in the full clutch of the coronavirus. I was kicked out of the camp, slept on the road a few nights, and then arrested with hundreds of Afghans, loaded on a bus, and deported back to Afghanistan.

I was brokenhearted; hope dissipated with every mile. I thought I had lost all my dreams.   

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But I know the sign of a good athlete is the ability to rebound from defeat, reevaluate your goals, and embrace the new test. That’s what I’m doing, with my new medical technology studies, a job at a supermarket, and trying to cope better with a family that just doesn’t understand my obsession with boxing.

My dream is, still, to be a champion.

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