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Efforts to evacuate and resettle Afghan women cyclists are still ongoing

Shannon Galpin has been working for over a year to get Afghanistan's female cyclists to safety, but the work is not over yet.

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Last time I spoke to Shannon Galpin, around a year ago, she was in the middle of orchestrating the evacuation of a group of female cyclists from Afghanistan with whom she had previously worked. 

Before August 2021, over the course of nearly a decade, women’s cycling in the country had steadily grown to see women represented across multiple clubs and teams. Then, after the US withdrew their last troops and the Afghan president fled – leaving the Taliban free to take over – Galpin found herself desperately trying to get the same women to safety after the sport that had brought so much to them now represented a direct threat to their lives. 

Galpin started a crowdfunding campaign to financially support the evacuations that she was essentially single-handedly coordinating, in order to cover visas, flights, and accommodation for those who were being evacuated. 

Her overarching sentiment in August 2021 was one of frustration, at those in power who had failed the Afghan people, and a fearful urgency to bring the women to safety. 

One year later, a period in which Galpin says she has “worked every single day”, the outlook is one of optimism. 

“All of the major female cyclists in Afghanistan from teams are evacuated,” she tells me. 

Galpin explains how despite calls for organisations, those within the cycling industry, governments, and NGOs to step in, “it’s been largely crowdfunded and, you know, it’s been really difficult, but also really beautiful.

“To have an evacuation and the resettlement come from individuals around the world is unprecedented, I think. And so being able to say exactly one year on that we’ve gotten 126 cyclists and family members, resettled – not just evacuated now –  but resettled into seven different countries is amazing, and that’s because of individuals that gave a shit and donated money.”   

Although many of the cyclists come from the same province in Afghanistan, they are now spread between Italy, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK as a result of visa necessities. 

Although she has done most of the work alone, Galpin is now working with a UK-based non-profit organisation called iProbono which has helped with visa applications, “but I’m responsible for the fundraising, for my evacuation logistics,” Galpin explains.

Of the 126 cyclists that Galpin has evacuated, 58 are cyclists while the rest are family members. Now that most are resettled, her attention has turned to long-term projects to support the women in continuing their passion. 

“We’re working to create more support with cycling,” she says. “And the long-term fundraising support is to continue to use bikes and to reconnect them as a team,” she says.  

Many are without their families who are still back in Afghanistan. “Italy is also working with us to to look at evacuating their families,” Galpin says. “So there’s a path towards reunification too. So I think there’s hope for that.”

Despite such turbulent and traumatic shifts in their lives, the women are as determined as ever to continue training and competing in the sport they love.  

“Taliban have banned cycling. Taliban have banned all sports for women. And so there is a feeling of defiance,” says Galpin. “There is a feeling of resilience and there’s that happiness and joy that I think those of us who ride bikes all feel when we ride.

“Afghan women often spoke of, when they rode, how free they felt, how they often felt like flying. Those were the analogies they used a lot. But now there is also the fact that they are doing something that wasn’t just a taboo when they lived in Afghanistan and they were breaking a gender barrier – they are now doing something that is banned.”

The determination and ambition of these women, says Galpin, is incredible. She recalls how the women she worked with “were already saying ‘we want to ride the Tour de France, we want to ride in the Olympics.’” They had these goals even when they were riding bikes with rusted out derailleurs that couldn’t shift. These are women that have never been limited by what someone else has told them, what they can or cannot do. I have always been astounded by how big they dream.

“The world continually underestimates them. The world continually paints Afghan women as victims, and these cyclists are just one small group of many within Afghanistan that show how incredibly strong, how incredibly unique, how incredibly powerful – all of these things that they shouldn’t have to be – that Afghan women are.”

Through the exhaustion and devastation of families torn apart and lives endangered, the success of bringing the women to safety and allowing them to continue to pursue their passions and ambitions has brought hope to an otherwise hopeless situation.  

“There is life after these horrible stories,” says Galpin. “I think in general, everyone is feeling really hopeful. They have a lot of support. They’re not in camps. They’re in homes. Many are already on bikes again. Some have already been racing.” 

It is all thanks to the original fundraiser, she says, “that saved lives. That kept people safe, that funded passports, and that funded visas. And without that, we would not have gotten people out.

“It’s lovely to be able to even talk about it a little bit, because there’s so much joy now. It’s not done, but there is also joy. And so that’s such a relief, and to be able to share that there is a next step and that there is success…” 

But, she reiterates, the work is not finished. There are still cyclists who need safeguarding while they await visas, and those who have been successfully evacuated need continued support. Galpin is still in the process of raising funds

“We’re not done,” she says. 

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