Girls and women of all ages and skill levels are welcome to participate in the IWFFA. BARRY GAUKEL/ShadyPalmPhotography.com

The International Women’s Flag Football Association unforgettably fulfilled its mission of women’s empowerment and equality last year, when its Key West founder, Diane Beruldsen, helped 70 Afghan women gain political asylum and escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Beruldsen had previously traveled to several different countries teaching women the game of flag football, coaching their first practices, then training local coaches and spreading a message of female strength and equality. 

But her coaching travels in 2018 made history and saved lives. 

It was then that Beruldsen traveled to Jaipur, India to teach a group of Indian women flag football. A handful of Afghan women who were living in Kabul, Afghanistan were able to obtain visas and meet Beruldsen in Jaipur, India. They had never seen, held or thrown an American football, but were enthusiastic learners.  

“At that time, in 2018, U.S. troops occupied Afghanistan. The American government used sport programs to empower the Afghan women to counter their culture, its forced submissiveness of females and the dominance of men and the Taliban,” Beruldsen said in a recollection of what became a 15-month mission.

“Teaching the Afghan women flag football meant much more. The IWFFA uses flag football to develop leaders and empower females. This situation was the essence of our organization. A lot of planning, money and hard work would go into this effort,” she said, adding that fundraisers provided money to buy equipment that the Afghan women would bring back to their country.

Using Hindi translators for the Indian players and Persian translators for the Afghan women, Beruldsen taught fundamentals, finesse and strategy. 

More importantly, friendships became connections that would cross oceans and continents.

While in India, Beruldsen heard what life was like for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. 

“It was so difficult to understand why men would suppress women to such extremes. Women were not allowed to watch TV, use the internet, attend school or play sports. They couldn’t leave the house without a man’s permission. Not just husbands, but brothers and other male relatives had the right to control them. This was the life for women outside Kabul. These Afghan women who came to India were lucky to be living in Kabul, which was occupied by U.S. troops. The rest of Afghanistan was still run by other militias and the Taliban.” 

Upon returning home from India, the Afghan women created the Afghanistan Women Flag Football Federation. They coached, officiated and played flag football — until August 2021, when U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan. 

Teams compete in the IWFFA’s Kelly McGillis Classic in Key West. BARRY GAUKEL/ShadyPalmPhotography.com

The Taliban retook control of the country and subjected women to brutal restrictions. Women who participated in sports had broken the Taliban law and faced harsh punishments, Beruldsen said.

Then she received a text message from Afghanistan: “Madame, can you help us?”

Beruldsen didn’t hesitate to do anything in her power: writing letters to congressmen, seeking out the few American soldiers still in Afghanistan and finally, receiving a fateful email from a former IWFFA flag football player. 

Bridget Cambria was more than a sympathetic former player. She was an immigration attorney who co-founded a nonprofit called ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center, which had already helped several Afghans gain asylum.

A flood of Zoom calls, paperwork, passport applications, fees and visas followed. Beruldsen lined up jobs for the women in Key West and Provincetown, Massachusetts hotels. 

But delays ensued, deadlines passed and hope decayed, just as the IWFFA was ramping up for its Mexican Flag Football Tournament in May 2022. That’s when ALDEA’s lawyers suggested the Afghan women apply for asylum in Mexico instead of the U.S. 

The Mexican government agreed and on Nov. 16, 2022, the first group of 37 Afghans landed in Mexico City on a flight from Istanbul, Turkey. Beruldsen was there to welcome them, having slept in the airport after arriving late the night before.

“In our first group of 37 Afghans, 22 were women, 18 were flag football players and all of

the Afghans — women, girls, men and boys — were members of the IWFFA.”

A second group of 33 Afghans is now awaiting their escape on a similar flight. 

The IWFFA is continuing to raise money for the second group’s  plane tickets and other assistance. A Go Fund Me account has been established under the title “Help resettle Afghan women’s flag football team.” 

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.