December 2, 2021

‘Afghan Girl’ from National Geographic magazine cover granted refugee status in Italy

Written by Hada MessiaNicola Ruotolo, CNNRome

The “Afghan Girl” made famous after featuring on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985 has been granted refugee status by Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, according to an Italian government press office statement.

The striking portrait of then 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun orphan in a refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border, was taken in 1984 and published the next year. Gula was tracked down decades later living in Pakistan, after no one knew her name for years.

Now in her late forties, Gula has arrived in Rome, according to the Italian Prime Minister’s Office.

“In 1985, thanks to the photography of Steve McCurry, who the previous year had portrayed her very young in a refugee camp in Peshawar for the cover of National Geographic Magazine, Sharbat Gula acquired global notoriety, to the point of symbolizing the vicissitudes and conflicts of the phase history that Afghanistan and its people were going through,” reads a statement released by Draghi’s office.

Sharbat Gula pictured in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2016.

Sharbat Gula pictured in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2016. Credit: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Responding to the requests of those in civil society and in particular among the non-profit organizations active in Afghanistan which, after the events of last August, received Sharbat Gula’s appeal to be helped in leaving their country, the Prime Minister took it upon himself and organized her transfer to Italy within the broader context of the program for the evacuation of Afghan citizens and the government’s plan for their reception and integration,” the statement continues.

CNN has asked the Italian government if Gula’s family was also granted refugee status, but has not yet heard back.

In 2016 McCurry told CNN the story behind the photograph.

“I knew she had an incredible look, a penetrating gaze,” he said. “But there was a crowd of people around us, the dust was swirling around, and it was before digital cameras and you never knew what would happen with the film.”

McCurry said he knew the picture was special when he developed it.

“I showed it to the editor of the National Geographic, and he leaped to his feet and shouted, ‘that’s our next cover’,” he added.

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