Winter Park man documents, coaches Afghanistan female ultra-runners
July 18, 2018
GRANBY — When Tyler Tomasello returned to Winter Park from Afghanistan, he wasn't expecting it to be harder than when he left for the war-torn country. But it was — and still is, he said.
"I got to see a part of Afghanistan not many people get to see," Tomasello said.
Tomasello, a local freelance photographer and ultra-running guru, spent a little more than a month overseas in April documenting and coaching a group of courageous Afghan women who were to compete in an upcoming ultra marathon.
He anticipated danger, going as far as purchasing body armor before embarking upon his journey. He would be traveling alone, meeting up with a nonprofit group called Free to Run, which gives women a safe place to run in Kabul and around Afghanistan. The group was also putting together a curriculum for a life-skills program at area schools and clubs.
It's more than just a tumultuous atmosphere in Afghanistan, Tomasello explained, and for women to show a hint of independence, namely running in public, it's considered dangerous. Though now free from Taliban rule, Afghanistan is in the process of rebuilding and shifting attitudes, albeit slowly.
Despite the massive security and battle-scarred appearance, the 34-year-old Winter Park native experienced an Afghanistan not portrayed in the mainstream media — one of colorful, active people, who he came to respect and appreciate. And the feeling was mutual, he said.
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"I became a member of their family," he said.
Still, the atmosphere that surrounded him was drastically mixed. He acknowledged that while the people were pleasant and hospitable, there was only an illusion of safety from day to day.
He would observe frequent security checkpoints with heavily armed military. On his flight into Kabul's airport, he could make out the sites from bomb blasts. The airport was tattered and downtrodden. While driving around, he would notice a random palace that had been destroyed.
"There were probably three to four attacks a week while I was there," he said. Those were from suicide bombers. "One day, there was a total siege of Kabul, bombed like three police stations, militants in the street shooting. You never hear about this stuff on the news."
A suicide bomber blew up in the city center hiding in a group of photographers. Several were killed.
There was no mistaking it: Afghanistan was still a country very much reeling from war. There was always the threat of terrorist activity. At any time, there could be an attack.
But the people who Tomasello encountered seemed to make that reality fade.
For the love of sport
With his camera equipment in hand and an eager attitude, Tomasello followed the group of Afghani women, ranging in age from 23 to 27, to a location about three miles outside the relative safety of the "green zone," where the embassies and military bases are established in Kabul.
It was there, on a 0.8-mile stretch of road flanked by barbed wire security gates and a concrete blast wall, where the women would run. They were training for the Gobi Desert March in Mongolia, a 250-kilometer stage race.
They faced occasional harassment, like when boys would throw rocks at them and yell insults. The women's stride continued unfazed.
"It's taboo for a woman to be doing any kind of sport because when the Taliban was in control, women weren't allowed to do any sports," Tomasello explained. "If they were caught, worse-case they get killed."
"Just to run 200 feet is risking their lives," he added. "These girls are really standing up against the status quo and trying to change things a little bit."
They persevered in the name of sport, loving what they were doing and not letting people detract from their passion.
Their attitude fit in well with Tomasello's mission.
"I did this for the love of sport and women's rights — humanity as a whole," he said. "They deserve to have their voice heard."
Expectations vs. experience
As Tomasello's time in Afghanistan progressed, he shrugged off his initial feelings of uncertainty and fear, becoming more ingrained with the people and the culture.
"It's a simpler lifestyle," he said. "People are more open."
Tomasello balks at the stereotype that many Afghan people disdain the U.S. and Americans. While that is usually true for the Taliban soldiers and other terrorists still active there, it's not for the typical residents of Kabul.
He believes the mainstream media focuses far too much on the sensationalism of the violence over there and not the people.
"I think we all, here in America, think we know what Afghanistan is like from what we see on the news," he admitted, saying he, too, had those expectations of the country before he left American soil.
"But when I got there, you walk down the street and see men hugging and kissing each other on the cheek and holding hands. Everyone is smiling and laughing," he said.
He recalled a point when he was walking around Kabul and somebody invited him into their shop to look at their colorful, intricate rugs for sale. He suddenly found himself sitting on one of those rugs drinking tea for half an hour, enjoying great conversation.
"It's a very welcoming society, and everybody's so kind and nice," he said. "The opposite of what I expected."
His experience was so positive that he's planning to return to Afghanistan and keeps in frequent contact via Skype and social media with the friends he made there.
"I wish everybody could go there," he said. "It's an absolutely incredible place."
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