A ragtag group of 160 Afghan athletes, diplomats and family members, fleeing the Taliban to safety in Doha, Qatar, faced seemingly impossible odds. But their miraculous journey began with a photo taken outside a Doha hotel by a Georgia Tech graduate student named Fausat Lobe. The photo sparked concerns, prompting authorities to bar Afghanistan’s athletes and officials from entering the country on Sept. 6.
Athletes who qualify for the games are supposed to receive passes to leave their country for the competition, but in this case, the athletes are excluded from even entering Doha. A group of relatives, fearing that they would be arrested for having backed the wrong side, sought relief outside the Olympics’ family reunification center, taking refuge in an Afghan house. “The house belonged to the name of an Afghan professor living in Doha,” Fausat Lobe told a news conference in London on Thursday. “But there were Taliban around. It was like they were occupying their house. They had to try to leave the house or run away in an open vehicle.”
The family reached out to the International Olympic Committee, which posted Lobe’s photo to its Facebook page. The Soviet Union had sponsored Afghan athletes during the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, and now a small army of U.S. Marines and soldiers — many of them wearing bracelets commemorating those games — were poised to help them gather documents to pass through the security checkers of the Qatari airport.
There were also schools, including three full-sized hotels, that were ready to house the Doha-bound passengers, for a fee of $12,000 each. The organizers pointed out that only about 30 athletes would need to be housed at any given time, and that money was scarce because the airline charges that they would need to make to board their planes was a prohibitive $14,000. Still, the group began to accept the offer.
Lobe said the network orchestrated a rendezvous outside the main gates of the airport. “I was about to go through passport control and another passport control officer stopped me,” she said, “and asked me whether I’d like to go through passport control again. I didn’t want to, so he got permission from the head of passport control to put my passport in his cart. So, I was actually in the next bus which was going on the runway, to pick up coaches and get me and the other people who wanted to get out of Doha.”
If it was an insult, Lobe refused to let it faze her.
“I told the driver to get me, and I walked with the group to the gate where we went through customs,” she said. “It was surreal to be walking the path in front of the [government] dogs and then going through the metal detector in a uniform with a red suitcase in front of me.”
“I didn’t find the whole thing surreal,” Lobe continued. “There was no time to think. I just crossed the customs line and moved to the red uniformed officer, who asked me for my passport and my ticket. Then, I thought of how great it was to be in the Olympics, and I flashed my green ticket.”
“And that was the end of all the security as far as I was concerned,” Lobe said. “I took off my green gear and proceeded through security again, which was very reassuring.”
The family was on their way to Doha with 450 other athletes.
In this case, the Taliban’s violent extremism didn’t stand in the way of the family’s Olympic dreams. Lobe added, “It is inconceivable that this ragtag group of Afghans were able to rally to such a stratagem. … It is impossible that they could pull such a story off.”