There were Vespas humming through the streets, tourists crowding the sidewalks and this old Gothic church that Sajjad Husaini stopped to marvel at each time he walked the cobblestone streets of his new neighborhood.

Husaini, 30, was raised in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. But for weeks, he had been living in a tropical climate in Italy’s coastal Cagliari, swimming regularly in the Tyrrhenian Sea — a refugee and an athlete hoping to soon be back where he belonged: on the slopes.

Not long before arriving in Italy, Husaini was a top slalom skier in Afghanistan whose Olympic dreams had garnered international attention. He did not quite qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Games, which would have made him the first Afghan winter athlete to do so. But he had his eyes on 2022, and, as a tour guide in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, he was building a life and career on snow.

Then came this summer, when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban roared back to power and 130,000 civilians fled, displaced all over the world.

Female athletes were especially vulnerable; the country’s women’s soccer team fled to Australia with the help of a global network of supporters. But those women weren’t the only athletes to escape. And many, such as Husaini, have found refuge in Italy.

Husaini’s family escaped with the help of Italian tourists he had met on the slopes, landing on the island of Sardinia. Sayed Alishah Farhang, his friend and skiing partner at Afghanistan’s Bamian Ski Club, has been living in northern Italy’s Trento. Nazira Khairzad, a rising female skier and activist, is assigned to a small town north of Bologna.

“We never expected the Taliban” to return and “control Afghanistan,” Husaini said in a phone interview recently, “and we have to leave everything behind.”

A mountain of hope

Not even a decade ago, the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, located in the Bamian region and largely inhabited by the Hazara people, were mostly unexplored terrain.

Though the range’s peaks soar north of 24,500 feet, the country’s first ski lift, a dated cable pull system at the Bamian Ski Club, wasn’t even installed until 2019. But Afghan ski culture has grown over the years as adventure seekers from Europe and Asia increasingly make the trip.

It was on those slopes that Husaini and Farhang, in 2017, started to draw attention on the professional skiing circuit, competing in events in Italy and Switzerland and appearing in a documentary about their Olympic pursuits. As ski instructors at the Bamian Ski Club, they also helped evangelize for their homeland as a tourist destination.

“It created a lot of hopes and opportunity for the young generation of Afghanistan,” Farhang, 31, said of the country’s burgeoning ski culture. And for those outside Afghanistan, Husaini said, it showed that people could see in their country “something positive — not all on the war, explosion, killing, Taliban, al-Qaeda or other things.”

That progress wasn’t without pushback. Khairzad, 17, faced oppression as a female athlete in a conservative Muslim country. “I was always seen as a bad person,” Khairzad said. But she endured, taking third place in a tournament in Pakistan in 2020. In her last competition, in March 2021, she won the Afghan Ski Challenge.

For Farhang and Husaini, their once-promising Olympic dreams were already fading before the coronavirus pandemic as sponsorships and other support that had allowed them to train in Switzerland dried up. The pandemic eliminated many training and travel options.

Then, in August, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, athletes moved to get out. Husaini reached Italian tourists he had befriended on the slopes. They connected him with the Italian army. With just two backpacks filled with documents, diapers and snacks, his family boarded a plane out of the Kabul airport four days before the explosion. Khairzad and Farhang leveraged the same Italian connections to help escape.

“I was scared,” Khairzad said. “It was very dangerous to enter the airport. We were trying for three days before we got in. ... I am still worried about my family.”

“I asked American friends, I asked Canadian friends, German friends, Switzerland friends, I asked Italian friends,” Farhang added. “Finally, Italians did the job.”

The Husainis flew to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, then Frankfurt, Germany, then Rome. They were assigned from there to Sardinia, where they would wait for visas that would allow them to settle in a location closer to where Husaini hoped to land: in Varese, near the high-altitude Alps.

In Sardinia, he passed time by watching Italian movies and socializing with fellow Afghan refugees, who also fled and were temporarily housed in a modest two-bedroom apartment provided by the Italian government.

“At the beginning, it was very hot and really strange for me to live here, but it's beautiful,” he said. “But I would like to stay in the mountains.”

New terrain

Khairzad settled in Ferrara, an enchanting city outside of Bologna that blends Medieval and Renaissance architecture. She and three other female Afghan refugees share a small room in a dormitory, sponsored by Caritas Internationalis, with windows tucked near the ceiling that offer only a sliver of daylight.

Most mornings, she goes running or finds an empty pitch to practice soccer alone. In the dorm, she studies Italian on her own and talks with fellow refugees on WhatsApp. “Everything is still new to me,” she said.

She still has ambitions to be a professional skier, honing her craft like her idol, former Austrian gold medalist skier Hermann Maier. But there aren’t areas where she can properly train. “I really miss the mountains in Afghanistan,” she said.

In Trento, Farhang is exactly where he wants to be. He forfeited his refugee status and aid in exchange for settling near the mountains. With the help of his Italian contacts, he is applying for a five-year working visa in Italy. He and his family have settled in the upstairs of a home owned by a friend he met while avalanche training in Trento in 2013.

Trento is within proximity of several mountains and ski resorts, and he recently completed the Trento Half Marathon. But sports are a hobby now. After losing two years of training, he no longer dreams of representing Afghanistan in this winter’s Beijing Games.

“It’s just figuring out how to get integrated here to find the work to do and to make a living,” Farhang said.

Husaini, too, is closer to the mountains again, after recently leaving Sardinia for Varese. He’s working on securing permanent asylum in Italy, improving his Italian and building his family’s new lives as European immigrants. Skiing, though, is not part of his career plan.

“As a refugee now ... I think it’s very difficult for the future if I still continue skiing,” he said. He’s hoping to get a graduate degree in European and global studies.

Husaini has been a refugee before: When he was 6 years old, he said, his family fled his village under the cover of darkness and under threat from the Taliban, settling in Iran before returning when he was 18. He hopes to return again — not to his Olympic aspirations but to the familiar mountains where he forged his identity as an Afghan athlete.

“It’s still a big dream to go back to Afghanistan,” he said. “The families and the memories and everything is back home.”