Following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, one international cricketer and his family have found safety and happiness in Sydney’s west. Javed Ahmadi knows only too well they count among the lucky ones
31 March 2022
Adam Burnett is the features editor at cricket.com.au. He has previously written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper and Wisden Cricket Monthly.
Javed Ahmadi’s seven-year-old daughter Hadia was standing out the front of their home in the Kunduz Province of Afghanistan, near the Tajikistan border, when the bomb blast hit. It was much closer than the others had been. And it was devastatingly loud. Hadia was left with ringing in her ears for days on end. She couldn’t stop crying. By the time her shock had subsided, they knew she had in fact been one of the lucky ones. Fifteen people had been killed in the blast.
Javed and his heavily pregnant wife knew something else, too. If they wanted their family safe, they had to flee.
“We leave everything,” Ahmadi tells cricket.com.au. “Our home. Car. Clothes. Everything we just leave like that and come across the border.”
He had made this trip with his wife and four children – all aged seven or under – a few times before, crossing into Pakistan and onto the city of Islamabad for annual and sometimes biannual medical check-ups due to the higher standard of healthcare there.
But never like this. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and the return to power of the Taliban, the journey became a perilous one.QUICK SINGLE
Across the three days that followed, Ahmadi shepherded his family across his homeland. In the world beyond, from the UK to Australia, his friends scrambled to organise visas. The Ahmadis made their way from Kunduz to Kabul, where they stopped for a night, and from Kabul east to Jalalabad, a city where eight people were killed in bomb attack on a cricket match in 2018. There they did not risk spending more time than is necessary.
“Anything can happen there,” Ahmadi says. “Some people are looking at you, and you cannot say who is Taliban, who is not, because there is not like a specific uniform for them.
“Everyone just take a revolver and they standing in the road and stopping the car and saying, ‘Where you going?’ and asking those questions. So how you know who is Taliban, who is not? Who is army, who is not?”
They passed through Jalalabad and drove the final 75km south-east to the border town of Torkham. At this third and final checkpoint they waited anxiously from sunrise to sunset, desperate to receive permission to cross into Pakistan after it was initially denied.
Then Ahmadi received a phone call from the Australian High Commission in Islamabad. He spoke with a lady named Maggie, who was working hard to secure Javed and his family safe passage. She emailed him supporting documents, then got in touch with Army personnel on the border.
“She told them, ‘They are Afghan cricketer’,” Ahmadi says, “‘and we want to take him to Australia, so please let him cross the border’.”
On October 7, they arrive safely in the Australian Embassy in Islamabad. Javed and his wife can breathe again.
“They are processing everything there,” Ahmadi says. “At the same time my wife is pregnant as well, so they really take care of her – they are testing everything so they look after her as well.
“After that I feel nothing, like I’m really comfortable when I get to Islamabad.”
The following day, as arrangements were made to fly the family to Australia, news reports detailed a suicide bombing in a mosque in Kunduz. Estimates varied, but as many as 100 people look to have lost their lives.
Javed and his wife exchanged looks. Not for the first time, they counted themselves among the fortunate.
* * *
On December 29, Javed and his wife welcomed their fifth child, a baby boy named Ali, into the world. Ali was born in Westmead Hospital, with the Ahmadis having settled in Merrylands in the west of Sydney, near Parramatta. It was an arrival that underscored the seismic nature of the recent shifts in their lives, as well as those of others; the Ahmadi family was among 900 Afghan evacuees to have resettled in Australia since the return to power of the Taliban in their home country last year.
Two days into the new year, Javed turned 30. Notionally, it might have been a time to reflect on the events of recent months, the way his world had been turned upside down, from his family’s relocation to the almost inevitable end of his decade-long run as an Afghanistan international cricketer.
Realistically, there was no time for introspection. With seven mouths to feed and Sydney rental prices to consider, Ahmadi sought work immediately, though initially it proved a struggle.
But the Afghan family were the beneficiaries of kind-spirited endeavour on several fronts. One of the earliest and most important steps was taken by not-for-profit organisation Settlement Services International (SSI), which reached out to Western Suburbs District Cricket Club – part of the Sydney Premier Cricket scene and a club steeped in history, with the likes of Michael Clarke and Phillip Hughes, and before them Alan Davidson, among a host of Test players to have passed through its doors.
More recently though, Wests had re-established itself as a club renowned for providing opportunities for overseas players who might otherwise have struggled to find a game at as high a level.
“We tried to revamp Wests Cricket Club seven or eight years ago … and the mantra we struck was ‘better people through cricket’,” says secretary Rick Wayde. “That’s been very definitely what we’ve wanted to do, and Javed is certainly top notch as far as a better person.
“We’ve also built a reputation as a club that helps a few people from different backgrounds. We’ve had Sandeep Lamichhane from Nepal, Haris Rauf from Pakistan, and various others.
“I think there’s a feeling that Wests show that duty of care to those people, and so we were approached about trying to help Javed when he had to flee the fall of Kabul. And we were happy to do so.”
The offer from Wests to Ahmadi was about much more than training sessions through the week and a game on weekends. As well as welcoming him into the fold, a job was quickly found for the off-spinning allrounder as a means of easing the challenges of resettlement in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
“Originally a job was sort of created for him – we’d had a lot of construction going on, and he was kind of tidying up from that,” says Wayde. “But he impressed so much that he came to jobs internally.
“Then when the second strain of COVID struck, we had to close one of our three clubs and spread the staff around. In that period, he was fantastic. He just did a whole bunch of various jobs and impressed.
“He’s just a guy who everybody has adopted from the jump.”
The only problem was that for Ahmadi, who was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan before moving to Kabul as a teen in 2006, the irregular hours meant finding time to sleep between work and parenting quickly became a losing battle. Again, a solution was found; this time club president Michael Swan, who has a history in the timber business, was able to find Ahmadi a job with tradesman hours at a timber company in Smithfield, just a five-minute drive from his home.
“I just am really hard worker from my start,” Ahmadi says, tracing back through his cricket career. “I’m really struggling to make a place in Afghanistan cricket team, then I make a place, and for 10 -12 years I’m part of the Afghanistan national cricket teams.
“So I do hard work here as well, to make my life and my children’s life and my family life better here.”
It is a simple approach and one that helped Ahmadi forge a 53-match international career, which began way back in July 2010, when he was just 18, and included Afghanistan’s maiden Test match as well as their most recent, in March 2021.
It is also one he shares with Afghanistan’s most famous cricketing son and Ahmadi’s close friend, Rashid Khan, who brought it front of mind for him as he set about facing new challenges.
For while it has been difficult for Ahmadi to avoid dwelling on the livelihood he has lost at home, the positives of his new life are not lost on him.
“Rashid believes in hard work as well,” he says. “He said that if you are a hard worker – don’t think about your future, just do your hard work – your future is yours and you easily can make it anywhere.
“The first few months were very hard for me because it’s really hard for someone to leave their homeland.
“But thanks to the Australian Government, and thanks to my cricket friends, it’s really happy now, and now I am planning for the next step.”
One aspect of that next step is cricket. Ahmadi has been performing serviceably for Wests as a top-order batter and off-spinner, particularly the latter, and as he becomes more accustomed to the bouncier Australian wickets, he feels self-belief, results, and hopefully opportunity at the next level, will follow.
With the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan appearing unlikely to change, Ahmadi is resigned to his fate in his home country. In January, the men’s national side played three ODIs against the Netherlands in Doha. Ahmadi, who had been an incumbent in that 50-over side, was overlooked, essentially confirming his status within his homeland as persona non grata. Again however, he is choosing optimism, recalling his previous cricketing experiences in Australia including a 2012 U19 World Cup in which he was the third-highest run-scorer behind Bangladeshi Anamul Haque and Pakistani Babar Azam.
“Afghanistan is no more OK for me,” he says. “I believe that they are now (effectively saying to him), ‘You can say goodbye to Afghanistan cricket’.
“If you spend 10-12 year somewhere and then suddenly you’re not playing anymore, it is very sad.
“But every page is two-sided. So now one side is leave Afghanistan cricket, leave everything there.
“But another side is the Wests cricket and the New South Wales Cricket, and then hopefully I make place for the Big Bash next year.”
* * *
The Ahmadi family story is but one of hundreds in recent months that follow a similar arc. Last December, SSI met with Cricket New South Wales (CNSW) after the resettlement organisation identified cricket to be a common theme among the Afghan evacuees. The happy outcome was a day of cricket activities at Bankstown Oval for around 100 new Afghan arrivals in Australia, replete with Afghan cuisine and expert cricketing advice from those within the game.
“SSI told us they had all these refugees who absolutely love cricket, and they were trying to help them settle into the community,” said one CNSW community cricket employee.
“To be able to provide an opportunity like that to these guys was fantastic, and it was also a chance for them to get to know the wider community.
“It was quite refreshing – they just absolutely loved it and were so excited to be there.
“You see kids turn up excited for cricket clinics, but I’d never seen anything like this, just in terms of how excited everyone was. You could clearly see what it meant to them. It was pretty inspiring.”
Well away from the horrors they endured in Afghanistan some refugee families have been welcomed to Sydney with a peaceful game of cricket. https://t.co/OF81oZFF1j #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/S3LTmTfDv3— 7NEWS Sydney (@7NewsSydney) December 7, 2021
Ahmadi was not in attendance that day, as he continues to juggle the complicated dynamic of his own fame among his compatriots with the fact he still has close family in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan – a situation he had to consider extremely carefully in his telling of this story. But he is confident that, with time, he and his family will be able to fully integrate with the burgeoning Afghan community in Western Sydney.
For now however, he is focusing on the happiness each day is providing. The Ahmadis are revelling in their new world; in the safety and the opportunities and the positivity they feel from the base of their modest three-bedroom home. Ahmadi’s two oldest children, seven-year-old Hadia and five-year-old Abobakar, have this year joined their local school.
“When they’re coming (home) from school they are telling me, ‘Papa, why we are not spending until night at school?'” he laughs. “So they’re really happy for the school, because a lot of gaming, lots of cricket, football, everything they’re doing there.”
Ahmadi meanwhile, spends his days toiling at the timber company, his thoughts whirling from the past to the present to the future – and back to the present – amid the noise of the heavy machinery.
“I just always tell my family, ‘Let’s spend some time in Australia and really enjoy because this is the world’s most beautiful country’,” he says.
“And I am working hard for my family. Because I come to Australia for my kids’ future. I want my sons fully educated and good human beings.
“If one time … somebody say, ‘Javed’s kids are really good boys or girls’, that’s all for me.”