A nonprofit’s dramatic escape from Afghanistan amidst the country’s collapse.
When Leah Anathan was a little girl listening to Reverend Ted Anderson’s sermon at the Unitarian Church on Nantucket about being of service to others, she never could have imagined what that concept would mean for her decades later. The daughter of Tom and Patricia Anathan, who have been deeply involved in the island’s nonprofit community ranging from the Nantucket Historical Association to the Community Foundation for Nantucket, Anathan’s family history on the island goes back more than six decades. Today, her own philanthropic work centers on Free to Run, a global nonprofit dedicated to championing women and girls living in conflict zones through sports. Founded in Afghanistan by Anathan’s best friend Stephanie Case, Free to Run has served as a beacon of hope for hundreds of Afghan women and girls over the last seven years. But all that changed dramatically at the end of this summer.
The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this August sent Free to Run into a deadly race against time. As a nonprofit funded by grants made possible through the U.S. Embassy and one dedicated to empowering women and girls, Free to Run’s team, participants and partners became prime targets for retribution by the Taliban. “The system really failed us,” explained Anathan, who became Free to Run’s board chair in 2018. “The events unfolded so quickly that it shocked everyone. The Taliban were outside of Kabul on a Friday and they overthrew the government on a Monday. We were scrambling to talk to the State Department to get our staff out.” When prearranged evacuation plans fell apart, Free to Run mounted its own ad hoc escape. They were up against impossible odds, but for Case, as the nonprofit’s leader, overcoming impossible odds was part of her job description.
A human rights lawyer for the United Nations, Case was competing as an elite ultra-runner when she moved to Afghanistan on assignment in 2012. Many said that her running career was doomed. How would she be able to train in a country where women were regularly stoned if they found themselves outside in the wrong neighborhoods? Undeterred, Case ran laps around the U.N. compound and ended up using her running to raise money for a local women’s shelter. The women in the shelter were fascinated by Case’s passion for running and asked her how they could get started. So began Free to Run.
“I really felt that the outdoor aspect was particularly important,” Case explained. “It’s not just about female empowerment through sports, which is important. In a country like Afghanistan that has been ravaged by conflict for decades, women are disproportionately negatively affected.” With each conflict, Case said, women were more and more restricted to the home. “So by finding ways to allow women to engage in outdoor activities, we were hoping to reclaim public space, which in turn, changes the view the community has about the roles women can and should be playing more broadly in society.”
From a tent in the South Sudan, where the U.N. had moved Case after a year in Afghanistan, she began forming Free to Run. Anathan joined the fledgling nonprofit as an advisor, leveraging her expert marketing skills to help bootstrap the organization. “I found myself assisting in the growth strategies, fundraising and other aspects that are more related to a startup,” said Anathan, who works as a chief marketing officer for tech companies in London. “It started slow in 2014 and 2015—organizing the first hike took months—but then it started moving faster and faster.”
Developing partnerships and engaging families whose girls were already in school (and thus were open-minded to female athletics), Free to Run grew organically in Afghanistan. What began as a single hike expanded to nearly two hundred women running alongside men in a marathon. “Free to Run is about sports and at the same time not about sports,” described Anathan. “It’s about sports as a vehicle for women and girls. Negotiating personal time outside the house. Developing friendships. About health and wellness. About setting ambitious goals that seem impossible.”
Despite the ever-looming threat of the Taliban, Free to Run achieved seven successful years without a single incident. They took extraordinary measures to keep the women and girls protected. Unmarked buses picked them up and drove them out to safe zones where they could run freely. The identity of each woman was fiercely protected. Over the course of those seven years, Free to Run expanded to Iraq and ultimately empowered more than three thousand women through running and other adventure sports. But then circumstances in Afghanistan fell apart dramatically.
From her years working in conflict zones, Case had been monitoring the ebb and flow of the situation in Afghanistan prior to the withdrawal, knowing how fast the tides can shift in the Middle East. On the one hand she held out hope that a possible peace treaty between the government and the Taliban could allow Free to Run to remain, but on the other she made evacuation plans. In the end, there was no time for either. As the U.S. withdrawal mounted and the Taliban stormed the country unchallenged, Case’s prearranged evacuation plans with the State Department deteriorated overnight, forcing her to orchestrate her own evacuation for more than forty staff members.
“It involved being on the phone with team members as they waited hours and hours and hours through days and nights trying to get past checkpoints,” Case said. “It involved working with special forces, militaries, reservists from multiple countries. It involved finding charter planes to take them out. It involved trying to get them any documentation to get them through check- points. It involved figuring out which gate at the airport was safest.”
Case and Free to Run’s executive director Taylor Smith worked day and night to get their team members and their families out of the country. In the hours before and after an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated himself outside of the airport, killing thirteen U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans, Free to Run managed to evacuate an undisclosed number of their people to countries like Qatar, Italy, France, Ukraine and Bahrain. Most times the passengers didn’t know where they were headed until they landed.
Despite the relative success of the evacuation, Case, Anathan and their team are pained by the thought of all those they left behind, women and girls who would now be forced back under Taliban control. “It’s heartbreaking to think about,” Anathan said. “These are wonderful young women who have incredible potential. There was a lot of lost momentum.” But Free to Run still holds out hope for their future. They are doing everything they can to stay in touch with the women in Afghanistan, and Anathan remains committed to the long-term mission. Part of her motivation stems back to her childhood on Nantucket.
“I was not the obvious choice to be board chair of Free to Run,” she said. “I was not raised in a region of conflict. Nantucket is about as far away from that as possible. It’s probably one of the best communities on the planet earth to live in. But because I was raised to always believe that we were so fortunate to have a place like Nantucket and to live in a community, I think of the old JFK statement, ‘For [of those to] whom much is given, much is expected.’ I hope I’m doing justice to values that I learned through Nantucket, through the Unitarian Church and through my family by giving back in this way.”