Cassie Childers sat along the curb of a street last Friday in New Delhi, India, staring at the door of the United States embassy. She’d been outside for an hour, she said, and was hoping for the best.
Inside were 15 young women and their coach, part of a select girls soccer team applying for visas to attend a tournament in Dallas, Texas. They were some of the top female players chosen from among thousands in the Tibetan communities of India and Nepal and recruited by Childers’ nonprofit, Tibet Women’s Soccer.
If they emerged holding their passports, Childers said she’d know they’d been rejected. The first group came out with nothing in their hands, a hopeful sign.
“I was really excited,” Childers told NBC News by telephone from India.
The coach came out last. In his hand were all the passports.
“As an American citizen, I was totally shocked and disgusted and horrified,” Childers said. “I basically went silent, and I didn’t know what to make of it.”
Childers, who said she wasn’t permitted inside the embassy in New Delhi, said all 16 team members told her they were given the same explanation why their visas were denied.
“The exact words were, ‘You have no strong reason to travel to the United States,’” she said. “Period. That’s it.”
“This is about Tibetan women having one of their only platforms on an international scale to represent themselves, and to tell their stories, and to say I’m Tibetan, and to determine that they have the right to play, as a woman and as a Tibetan.”
A State Department official told NBC News in an email Thursday that visa records are confidential under the Immigration and Nationality Act and that they don’t discuss the details of individual visa cases.
Childers said she believes embassy officials may have mistakenly thought the team members would try to seek political asylum once in the U.S.
“I personally knew for months that this might be a problem,” she said. “I was going to be pleasantly surprised if we got the visas, but this has been a problem for Tibetans for a long time.”
The majority of the team’s players hail from Tibet, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. Many had been sent to India at a young age by their parents to receive a good education and live in freedom, Childers said.
Accompanied by a paid guide, they walk over the Himalayas for 28 days, registering as refugees when they arrive in India, she said. They enter boarding schools soon after, separated from their loved ones for many years. The average age of the select team’s players is 20, Childers said.
“In many cases, their families don’t even know that they play soccer,” she added.
Relations have long been strained between China and Tibet, which China invaded in 1950. Tibetans have claimed persistent political and religious persecution at the hands of the Chinese government, a charge Beijing has denied.
The U.S., for its part, has treaded lightly on the Tibet issue. The State Department official said the U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China, a position that it added has not changed.
Past meetings with American presidents by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader exiled to India, have usually drawn rebukes from China.
“A lot of people are blaming this on the Trump administration’s new policies. But as much as I don’t like him, I don’t actually blame it on that. I think it’s always been hard for Tibetans to get visas to the U.S.”
All but two of the 16 team members whose applications were rejected held identity certificates from India, Childers said. These are issued to Tibetan refugees and stateless people residing in India, according to an India government website. The coach and another player both had Indian passports.
Childers said four other players, all citizens of Nepal, applied for visas in Kathmandu on Feb. 7. She said they were told the visas were under “administrative processing,” but never received a rejection letter.
The team spent half of its yearly budget, around $5,000, on visa applications, according to a Change.org petition asking the State Department to reverse its decision. More than 1,000 people had signed it as of Friday.
The invitation to attend the Dr. Pepper Dallas Cup in Texas, a prestigious boy’s soccer tournament held this April, was an important step in sports diplomacy for the Tibet Women’s Soccer team, Childers said. Past participants have included squads comprised of Israelis and Palestinians, Irish Protestants and Catholics, and South African whites and blacks, she said.
The women were slated to lead the opening day procession into the Cotton Bowl Stadium under the Tibetan flag, Childers said. They were also planning to play a few friendly matches with local girls’ teams from Dallas during their 10 days in the U.S, she said.
But the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA) told the Associated Press they were unaware of the Dallas Cup trip. Childers said her group is no longer part of that association and is not an officially sanctioned team.
"TNSA is officially recognized by the Central Tibetan Administration which has approved its mission and functions. The Association has a Governing Body and a Executive Board to manage its affairs," TNSA executive secretary Passang Dorjee told NBC News in a statement. "The Tibetan Women Soccer Team lead by Cassie Childers who has been denied visa by the American Embassy, Delhi recently is not affiliated with TNSA program."
The Dallas Cup issued a statement on its website, saying the Tibet Women’s Soccer team wasn’t competing in the tournament, which is for boys. Instead, they were to attend as guests of Dallas is Diversity, a charitable arm of the Dallas Cup, according to the news release.
“We will continue to work with the State Department, key lawmakers, and government contacts in assisting the Tibet Women’s Soccer initiative through their visa application process, however long it takes,” the statement said. “We are still hopeful that the Tibet girls realize their dream of a cultural and educational visit to the North Texas area one day, and once it takes place, we look forward to having them attend the Dallas Cup as our VIP guests.”
As executive director of a nonprofit that empowers women through soccer, and as a former soccer player herself, Childers expressed pride in how the young women have handled the disappointment.
“I have to say that the girls were much more strong than I was,” she said.
“I personally knew for months that this might be a problem. I was going to be pleasantly surprised if we got the visas, but this has been a problem for Tibetans for a long time.”
Outside the embassy on the day they got the bad news, the players huddled together and spoke in Tibetan to plan their next moves, Childers said. They decided to pen a letter in English to Dallas Cup executive director Gordon Jago, who had invited the team.
One of them grabbed a sheet of paper and got to work, sitting on the same curb Childers had occupied earlier. They also planned to film a player reading it aloud.
But there was a problem: no one had cell phones to record video since they weren’t permitted inside the embassy.
So they flagged down a stranger who agreed to help. He later sent them the clip, Childers said.
“It was pretty amazing,” she added.
The video was shared widely on social media, Childers said, leading to speculation over why the players’ visas were denied.
“A lot of people are blaming this on the Trump administration’s new policies,” she said. “But as much as I don’t like him, I don’t actually blame it on that. I think it’s always been hard for Tibetans to get visas to the U.S.”
With the trip cancelled, the players all headed back home for school and college, Childers said. They’re still planning to reassemble on March 15 for a three-week training camp, which was planned ahead of the Dallas Cup, she said.
Childers said they’ll try to arrange an alternative tour or match some place else that would welcome the team. As of Thursday, a location had yet to be decided.
Childers added that she wanted to make certain people understand this is not about playing soccer in Dallas.
“This is about Tibetan women having one of their only platforms on an international scale to represent themselves, and to tell their stories, and to say I’m Tibetan, and to determine that they have the right to play, as a woman and as a Tibetan,” she said.