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National Geographic 's Famed 'Afghan Girl,' Now a Mom in Her 40s, Finds Refuge in Italy

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Sharbat Gula
Sharbat Gula

ULRICH PERREY/DPA/AFP via Getty Images Photographer Steve McCurry stands next to his portrait of Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula, whose piercing portrait on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 put a face on war-torn Afghanistan, has fled the nation and is now living in Rome, multiple outlets reported.

Gula — who is now believed to be in her late 40s and has several children — was evacuated to Italy's capital sometime after the United States' withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban's retaking of control there in August, according to the New York Times.

"The prime minister's office has brought about and organized her transfer to Italy," the Italian government said in a statement obtained by the Times.

Gula asked the Italian government for assistance, the office of Premier Mario Draghi said, according to the Associated Press, which reported that Italy's government has committed to helping her adjust to life in Rome.

However, it remains unclear when Gula arrived in Italy or whether she will stay there, according to the Times.

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The news comes after nonprofit organizations requested help to evacuate Gula from Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been accused of limiting women's rights and searching for people who supported Americans there, the Times reported. Italy is among several Western nations that have evacuated Afghan refugees in recent months.

"They are the poorest women and the most fearful women in the world," Dr. Massouda Jalal, the first and only woman to run for president of Afghanistan, told PEOPLE of Afghan women in September. "Their life will be at any moment under threat."

Sharbat Gula
Sharbat Gula

Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Sharbat Gula

Gula became a symbol of the Afghan plight after being noticed by war photographer Steve McCurry at a refugee camp in Pakistan amid the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1984, when she was believed to be 12, according to the Times.

"I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take," he said of the chance meeting, according to NPR.

His intimate portrait of Gula was put on the cover of National Geographic's June 1985 issue, which featured the headline "Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier."

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But even as the image gained international acclaim, her identity remained unknown until 2002, when McCurry and a team of National Geographic journalists located her in the mountains of Afghanistan. Though "time and hardship had erased her youth," the magazine reported at the time, "the eyes still glare; that has not softened."

McCurry told The Guardian in September, "Afghans find themselves in the same predicament as they were back in the 1980s. They're questioning security, displaced and seeking refuge."

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