'It's just the start of my journey'
Asif Sultani, an Afghan athlete and refugee activist living in Australia, shares his lessons on overcoming defeat and cultivating resilience.
Asif Sultani in Maitland, Australia
© UNHCR/Brook Mitchell
Having fled Afghanistan as a child, Asif Sultani has built a life for himself as a Martial Artist in Maitland, Australia. As a Karate athlete, he narrowly missed out on selection for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Though initially heartbroken from not making the Team, Asif has remained more committed than ever in advocating for refugees and asylum-seekers around the globe.
Reflecting on his challenges, Asif shows how we can all cultivate resilience and determination, no matter the obstacles we face.
As a refugee, my heart has been broken over and over.
In 2018, I learned that I had been awarded an IOC Scholarship as a Refugee Athlete, with the potential to be chosen for the eventual Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020. At these Games, I dreamed of representing not only myself, but the many millions of refugees and forcibly displaced people around the world. I began training harder than ever. It was what I focused on, day in and day out and I made many sacrifices for this opportunity.
Like many athletes, I was disappointed when the Games were delayed by one year due to the pandemic. But I fully understood the need for this delay, and I tried to take advantage of the additional time to improve myself even more – as an athlete and as a person.
But when the Refugee Olympic Team was announced in 2021, I learned that I wasn’t selected. I was crushed; I felt that my dream was being taken away from me. I felt that I hadn’t just failed myself, but had also failed my fellow refugees who I dreamed of representing.
"In aiming to go to the Olympics, I wanted to unite people through the power and culture of sports."
I was never aiming for a medal. That wasn’t the reason I wanted to be an Olympian, or why I still do what I do.
There are 82 million forcibly displaced people in the world today. They’re why I was fighting so hard; they were my 82 million reasons.
I thought constantly of these people who are going through a similar situation that I had – of feeling unsafe and being forced to leave your home, of struggling to make your way in a new and unfamiliar place, of not knowing what your future might hold. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
In aiming to go to the Olympics, I wanted to unite people through the power and culture of sports. I dreamed of fighting for humanity, for equality, for the rights and freedoms that we – including refugees – should all be able to access. These were the values that I was going to represent at the Tokyo Olympics.
When I learned that my dream was not to be, I honestly thought that my heart was being shattered.
But even a broken heart can be mended.
It’s been almost a year, and my journey continues.
Of course, life is not easy. We all face obstacles and hardships in our lives. In talking through my pains and failures, I’m just being honest. Vulnerability is like honesty; it shows your true character. A lot of people try to hide the parts of themselves that are less flattering, less polished, less successful. On social media especially, people only show the highlights.
I promise, as a UNHCR high profile supporter, to always be truthful.
We need to normalize and talk about hardship and the reality of being disappointed, because it’s OK. There’s no shame in being upset and grieving the life you had once planned for yourself. You can take your time, and give yourself the space to be upset, before building yourself back up.
"I’m not going to give up on myself, or the refugees, including the children who inspire me."
It’s painful to talk about the truth, most of all to yourself. But it sets you free.
I took my time to reflect and of course, to be upset. But I’m now ready to rebuild myself, and to come back stronger. I’m not going to give up on myself, or the refugees, including the children who inspire me. They keep me going.
I’ve recently launched a motivational speaking business that enables me to speak with people across Australia and beyond, about the lessons of survival and resilience I’ve learnt along my journey as a refugee. I hope to talk one day in front of the world and on the biggest stage, using my voice for the refugees who currently aren’t able to use theirs. Of course, I’m starting small, that’s the way things work. But I’m on my way and I know there’s something special coming.
There’s a light shining in my heart again and I’m excited to see where this new chapter will take me.