Game Changer: How soccer inspired Farkhunda Muhtaj’s active global citizenship

A Game Changer is someone who uses their vision, will and personality to make a difference. Farkhunda Muhtaj, who uses the power of soccer to better the refugee and immigrant experience in Canada and abroad, checks all those boxes.

Muhtaj, 25, was among eleven Canadians honoured last year as part of the 2022 Volkswagen FC: Game Changers program, a collaboration between the Canadian Premier League and Volkswagen Canada which annually recognizes a team of Canadians who each individually embody Volkswagen Canada’s commitment to Be the Change by taking on leadership roles within our country’s soccer system and driving positive change through our sport.

With nominations for the 2023 Volkswagen FC: Game Changers program now open, we are taking a look back at one of the most inspiring stories among last year’s many worthy recipients. 

Muhtaj may have officially been named a Game Changer just last fall, but she has been changing the game through her sport and humanitarian efforts for years.

Originally from Afghanistan, Muhtaj’s family emigrated to Canada when she was two years old.. She got involved in sport, which helped her settle into her new country and connect with the community.

“It was hard to relocate to another country, but soccer helped me build resilience and gave me a place,” said Muhtaj. “Since I was young, soccer helped me realize my purpose, and I saw it as an opportunity to help me become a global active citizen. I developed a dream to play professionally.”

Muhtaj excelled on the pitch as she worked toward making that dream a reality. She landed a spot on York University’s varsity soccer team in 2015, and played semi-professionally for Vaughan Azzurri in League1 Ontario between 2015 and 2021. 

Muhtaj put her dreams of playing pro on hold after she finished university in 2021, to get work experience as a teacher. But when the Taliban took over Afghanistan later that year, her life took an unexpected turn.

“The Afghan Football Federation (AFF) called me and asked me to help evacuate the Afghan youth female national team players, because their lives were at risk,” said Muhtaj. “I didn’t have any direction, but I immediately began looking for solutions. Teaching definitely went on hold.”

Farkhunda Muhtaj (Photo: Roger Dohmen)

The AFF pinpointed Muhtaj, the captain of the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, as a leader and someone who could relate to the youth players on both an athletic and cultural level. Leading the evacuation from Canada was a 24/7 task, and operating within a changing political landscape was exhausting and emotional. Muhtaj initially worked on her own and had no direction, so she contacted various NGOs and humanitarian lawyers who were unwilling to help. She was eventually connected with the U.S. State Department’s intelligence officials, who agreed to support Muhtaj’s evacuation.

As she searched for a stable country that would provide the players with asylum, Muhtaj and the U.S. military were consistently moving the team from place to place and pushing through roadblocks, such as the closed Afghan borders and a lack of flights. They were eventually able to place the players in a safehouse and, within a few weeks, Muhtaj was able to move the team and their family members to Portugal.

Muhtaj joined the players and their families in Portugal. What was supposed to be a short visit turned into four months abroad, as Muhtaj helped get the group settled, working to find soccer clubs for the players, engaging them in education, buying basic necessities and providing humanitarian aid. 

“I’m proud to have been part of the solution and to be a role model for those girls,” said Muhtaj. 

Muhtaj’s work to ensure the safety of the Afghan youth female national players is not the only way she has given back to her community through soccer. She is also the co-founder of the Scarborough Simbas, a program she launched with Karen Scott in 2020. The Scarborough Simbas provides free recreational and wellness opportunities for newcomers, refugees, underprivileged and at-risk Muslim youth. The participants learn to connect with their communities and understand the fabric of Canadian society through the power of sport.

“Our first year we had 30 participants,” said Muhtaj. “For three hours we’d do leadership skill development, play soccer and have a meal together. It’s free, and through the sport we give participants support, financial relief and tutoring.” 

In the midst of all the work she has done for others over the past few years, Muhtaj also achieved a personal goal within the game. She fulfilled her childhood fantasy by signing a professional contract with Fortuna Sittard in the Netherlands in 2022, where she continues to play today. 

It was Muhtaj’s genuine passion for the game and for changing the lives of people of all ages, races and backgrounds through soccer that led to her nomination for the Volkswagen FC: Game Changers program in 2022. 

Muhtaj was honoured and humbled to be recognized as a Game Changer last year. She received a custom kit and a donation to a charity of her choice from Volkswagen Canada. Muhtaj’s donation went to the Simbas, and she was thrilled to learn about the other winners and the work they’re doing to change society through sport.

People need to be recognized for their good work, says Muhtaj, which is why she recommends other Canadians consider nominating leaders in their community for this year’s iteration of the Volkswagen FC: Game Changers program. 

“It gives inspirational pathways for others to follow,” Muhtaj said. “The most important part of the campaign is shedding the spotlight on inspiring people.”

Nominations for the 2023 Volkswagen FC: Game Changers program are now open here. The deadline for submissions is Friday, June 23, 2023. 

Find more information on the Canadian soccer leaders selected to the 2022 Volkswagen FC: Game Changers starting eleven here.