The family of an Afghan boy who became famous at five years old after a photo of him in a blue and white Lionel Messi jersey made from a plastic bag went viral, says they are under constant threat from the Taliban and want help getting out of the country.
In 2016, Murtaza Ahmadi begged his father for a Messi jersey, because he was a huge fan of the Argentine soccer player, his sister Mahdia Ahmadi remembers. But he couldn’t afford one, so Murtaza’s brother Hamayoon made him the shirt, and put “Messi” on it. Murtaza’s brother took a picture of him and posted it on Facebook. The photo went viral and eventually reached Mr. Messi. The soccer player sent Murtaza an autographed shirt and a signed soccer ball, and months later, met him at one of his games in Qatar.
What was meant to be a dream come true for the little boy turned his life upside down. As the excitement came, so did threatening phone calls and intimidation. The family lived south of Kabul, in Ghazni, parts of which were controlled by the Taliban. Ms. Ahmadi said the Taliban ridiculed Murtaza for being famous in the media in connection with a non-Muslim man. The family was so afraid of repercussions they moved to Pakistan. But they could not afford to live there, and returned after little more than six months, hoping the threats and intimidation had stopped. Ms. Ahmadi said the threats included the possibility of kidnapping.
Murtaza is 11 now.
But since the extremist Taliban took over the country in August, the threats and intimidation have intensified. Ms. Ahmadi said her family has moved 12 times since the Taliban takeover to avoid detection. She said after they fled their home in Ghazni, their former neighbours said the Taliban had searched their house and asked if they knew where Murtaza and his family had gone.
Ms. Ahmadi said her family also enlisted a relative to protect Murtaza and the others.
“The threats against Murtaza and our family increased, and day by day they’re increasing,” she said in a phone interview. “And Murtaza is like a prisoner at home. He can’t go out. He can’t meet with children because we are scared maybe the children will tell someone that Murtaza is here.”
She said her father receives phone calls from members of the Taliban who ask for their location, and that they say they don’t want to hurt his family, they want to discuss some issues.
“We know that they are searching for us, so we change the location time by time. And we are trying to go out from Afghanistan.”
Ms. Ahmadi said the family can’t leave the country because their passports have expired, and they would have to go through the Taliban to renew them.
Hamayoon Ahmadi said he escaped from Afghanistan when the Taliban began making sweeping gains in hopes of finding a way to get the rest of his family out of the country. He made the dangerous journey through Iran to Turkey, and during the trip, the country collapsed.
“When I’m speaking with my sister, my father and my mother, family members, they are telling me that they are in danger,” he said. “They get calls from the Taliban and they change the location and they hear that the Taliban will capture them.”
He wants to get them out before that happens.
He said he hopes Canada might welcome his family, saying his little brother could fulfill his dream to become a soccer player. “He will be famous like Messi. He’ll be the second Messi, in Canada.”
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