Seema Rezai was sweating. Her eyes were red. Strands of hair fell loose from a discombobulated ponytail.
She had just spent an hour sparring with mostly male boxers in an Auburn gym — helmetless, so she could see the punches. Wearing golden gloves, she faced off against one after another in three-minute bursts of jabbing, blocking and darting around the ring.
“It was good!” she enthused, catching her breath. Given what the almost 19-year-old Rezai has been through in the past year, she’s not easily fazed.
Rezai was an up-and-coming boxer in Afghanistan, challenging cultural and religious norms for women, when the Taliban swept into Kabul last year. Her high profile and outspokenness put her instantly at risk. She managed to get herself and her family out of the country, with the help of photojournalists putting together an evacuation list for women likely to be Taliban targets.
She lives now in a sprawling Lynnwood apartment complex, and as of early October, worked 9 to 5 in a customer service role at a downtown Seattle hotel, taking a series of trains most nights to her Auburn gym. There, she transforms from a trendy teenager, in cuffed jeans and a black blazer on a recent Friday, to a fighter looking to win a spot in the 2024 Olympics on a team recently created for refugees.
“One thing I can tell you, women of Afghanistan are really strong,” Rezai said at a strip mall cafe near her home, massaging sore muscles in one wrist as she spoke. If Afghan society doesn’t let them show their strength to the world, she hopes to provide a counterimage by becoming a boxing champion.
She wears that goal on her sleeve — or, rather, her arms and right hand, which collectively bear three tattoos: one that reads “boxer,” one of the Olympic rings and one of a lion. She got them all in Kabul.
Not ready to give up
At 16, Rezai walked into a gym in Afghanistan’s capital and headed for the boxing coach. He looked shocked. She was the only female in the room.
The Taliban had been out of power for almost 20 years, and sports, along with other aspects of society, were opening up for women. Some even belonged to a national boxing team.
Certain attitudes were changing slowly, however. “A small number of people were OK with women being in sports, but the general public did not really accept that,” said Meetra Alokozay, executive director of Sahar, a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to increasing educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan.
In public settings such as schools, girls and women often inhabited different spaces than boys and men.
The coach told Rezai he didn’t have a problem training girls but said others would object and sent her away.
Rezai wasn’t ready to give up. She had been watching women fight on TV and saw for herself a path that was part of a larger struggle. She went back to the gym the next day and pleaded her case.
This time, the coach relented. Just make sure to wear clothes fully covering your body, he told her, before buying her boxing gloves and waiving his usual coaching fee.
Rezai sparred with men, shy at first, then gaining confidence. “All of the male boxers, they started supporting me,” she said.
Over the next two years, she made it onto the national boxing team and placed first and second in critical lightweight competitions. The press took note. She appeared on Afghan TV stations at least a half-dozen times and was photographed for National Geographic — developing a relationship that would later prove critical.
When the Taliban took over in August 2021, she shut herself in her room, crying. As a young woman, she believed life as she knew it was over. She also feared her boxing career endangered not just herself but also her parents and three siblings, despite their mixed feelings about her unconventional pursuit. Her dad, in particular, disapproved, though he worked hard to see that his daughters got an education.
Rezai, looking for help to leave the country, reached out to photojournalist Andrea Bruce, who had photographed her for National Geographic.
Bruce, as it happened, was working with another photojournalist, Stephanie Sinclair, to get particularly endangered women out of Afghanistan.
Rezai “was definitely at the top of our list of people we wanted to get out,” recalled Sinclair, who in 2012 founded Too Young to Wed, an organization devoted to preventing girls from being pressured into marriage at a young age.
Sinclair said she and Bruce got National Geographic to ask the U.S. Department of State to put Rezai and her family on an evacuation flight. The government agreed. But the family had to get to the plane.
For roughly 10 hours, Rezai and her family tried to wade through thousands of people jamming the streets around Kabul’s airport. Rezai texted the flight organizers, who redirected her to a hotel where they could get a safe escort.
At the hotel, however, she was told that only she could leave immediately. Her family would have to wait.
“My heart was broken, honestly,” Rezai said. She thought she might never see her family again.
But her family was evacuated three months later to Qatar, where Rezai had initially landed, and they made their way together to the United States.
A kindred spirit
After a three-month stint at a New Jersey military base among thousands of Afghan evacuees, waiting for paperwork to be processed by the U.S. government and assigned to resettlement agencies across the country, Rezai’s family was sent to the Seattle area.
The teenager found a coach fairly easily. A filmmaker involved with Too Young to Wed had worked on a boxing documentary and had connections. But boxing was far from the only thing on her mind when she arrived some six months ago. She was adapting to a new country and finding jobs for herself and her parents, using English honed from classes in Kabul while going door to door, asking to speak with managers. She found her mother a job as a hotel housekeeper, her father as a factory worker.
A few months after arriving in the Seattle area, Rezai had a match against another female boxer, as with all her competitions. She lost. “I wasn’t ready,” she said.
She tried different gyms, and now trains in Auburn and Tukwila. One of Rezai’s coaches is Farid Ton, who sees in her a kindred spirit. A 54-year-old aerospace machinist who fulfills a passion for boxing on the side, he too had once been a refugee, from Vietnam.
“Everybody has a dream,” he told her after hearing her Olympic hopes. “That’s why I came to the U.S.”
Ton contends Rezai has a chance. Like him, she came from a country torn apart by war. “That’s why I think she can handle it,” he said. “She’s very tough.”
But she has work to do. As she took breathers during a recent sparring session, Ton gave her pointers: Get closer to taller opponents, move your head, use both fists. She tended to use her left, if prodigiously.
Outside of the ring, Rezai’s path to the Olympics includes an additional challenge: She needs to be considered an official refugee, as judged by the U.N. Refugee Agency, to be eligible for the Olympics refugee team.
In the confusing maze of national and international refugee law, the emergency status granted by the U.S. government to Afghans like Rezai — “humanitarian parole” — doesn’t count. She needs to have at least applied for asylum, granted to people determined to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries, and Rezai can’t afford a lawyer to help with the application.
But even without an Olympic pedigree, Rezai, who hopes to attend college soon and perhaps become a lawyer herself, seems on her way to becoming a role model.
Too Young to Wed flew her to Washington, D.C., in early October to speak at an exhibition for the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl.
Sinclair, who met the young boxer in person for the first time at the event, held in partnership with the State Department, was impressed by Rezai’s poise and confidence as she spoke about the plight of Afghan girls. “She’s just really powerful, not just physically,” Sinclair said.
Taking in the event’s display about girls around the world, many experiencing a rollback of rights and opportunities due to repressive regimes and the COVID-19 pandemic, Rezai told Sinclair afterward, “I want to be a voice for all girls, not just Afghan girls.”
Too Young to Wed made her a youth ambassador. Asked for her ideas, Rezai suggested wearing a T-shirt with the organization’s name when she boxes. People would likely ask her about it, and she could talk about issues affecting girls and women.
She would fight, literally, for them.