KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Samira Asghari was part of a rebellion growing up.

It was a peaceful one led by her generation. She was simply a young girl in Afghanistan getting an education and playing basketball in the early 2000s after the United States and NATO Allies removed the Taliban from power in 2001.

But not everyone in Afghanistan embraced views like Asghari's family — girls and women getting an education and playing sports was seen as progressive. The Taliban's six-year reign had influenced many to live by its beliefs and ideology.

When she was 8, Asghari had no idea she would be pivotal in helping 29 Afghan women flee to Albania after the Taliban regained control in 2021. It took 19 months of work, but in three to four weeks, 13 of those women and two of their children are being resettled in Knoxville. The collective in Knoxville continues to raise funds for things like sponsoring English lessons as they prepare for their arrival.

When Asghari was a young girl, she would wear jeans and pink sneakers in hopes of encouraging other women to do the same instead of wearing burqas that were required by the Taliban. Her family was supportive of her pursuits and she began playing basketball at 14, even though it wasn't widely accepted — and it was even harder trying to normalize it.

"It was very difficult to just go outside as a young basketball player," Asghari told a small group in Knoxville on Wednesday. "You are a decent person, you have a good family, but when you go out in the street, people insult you … any social class you can think of, they would just insult us, saying bad words when we were heading to the stadium or going to school.

"We were fighting, competing not only on the field of play, but also off the field of play."

Asghari went on to become the captain of the Afghan National Basketball Team and moved to Switzerland to pursue her master's degree in sport administration and technology. In 2018, she also became the youngest and first Afghan representative for the International Olympic Committee at age 24.

In August of 2021, she watched from afar as the 20 years of progress came to a screeching halt. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan after the United States evacuated, and female athletes or any women who pursued education or a life were in danger.

The process of evacuation started when Asghari got connected with Mara Gubuan, the founder of Equality League. Evacuation and resettlement of athletes isn't within the scope of the advocacy organization, but Asghari didn't have anywhere else to turn to.

She got messages from over 1,000 women in hiding. The Taliban was hunting down women who had pursued education, sports or other personal freedoms and killing them or punishing them into silence.

"Women who were just having our social activities as a human being; education is an (intrinsic) right for any human being," Asghari said. "So (through) all these things, we are fighting against their beliefs. So they don't like us, because of our education, that we want to have education or just to live a life that is our right."

Gubuan sought help from the U.S. Department of State, the NBA, the WNBA and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She didn't find any aid.

Eventually, Gubuan secured the help of FIFA to help evacuate 29 Afghan women to Albania. Gubuan finally reached out to Sarah Hillyer, who is the founder and director of the UT Center for Sport, Peace & Society, in desperation.

"It's frustrating," Hillyer said of the lack of support they found. "It calls you to a really unique kind of action when you realize that it is such a grassroots movement. It also shows the power of just a couple individuals banding together to do something that is more purposeful and larger than ourselves, and that we literally can move mountains and save lives."

Hillyer was asked for help in December 2021. By February of 2022, she was on a plane to Albania. By May of 2022, former Lady Vols basketball star Michelle Marciniak had caught wind and was on a trip to Albania with Hillyer.

"When you're there, it's much different than seeing something on CNN," Marciniak said. "It's on TV, it feels very far away. But when you see everybody, when you see these young women eye to eye, and they hug you — you see the joy in their hearts, and the joy in their eyes … you could see that they were clinging to everything we said, and we were giving them a hope for a future."

For Hillyer and Marciniak, it's not only about helping because they can. It's an intentional way they can carry on the legacy of legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt.

"For us, it was a no-brainer … is there anything that Pat was more committed to than providing education in the classroom and education on the court?" Hillyer said. "This is a very tangible way for us to say, Pat, you believed in this. You've passed that on to us, and we're going to pass it on to people who literally were willing to risk their lives for those two things."

Recently evacuated Afghan women sit beside a baby at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Recently evacuated Afghan women sit beside a baby at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

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