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Even more than a fighting spirit


Even more than a fighting spirit

Afghan refugee Mustafa on his path to becoming a professional kickboxer in Turkmenistan.
13 May 2024
Mustafa poses with his kickboxing trophies and medals.

Every martial artist has a ritual they follow before a big fight. Maybe it’s a special meal they eat, or a song they listen to. For Mustafa, a professional kickboxer in Turkmenistan, his ritual is to watch comedy movies. 

 “Before a fight, I listen to music and watch comedy films,” says Mustafa. “I don’t think about the fight. When I come into the ring, only then I start to think about the fight.”  

It may seem like an unusual approach, but having won 79 of his last 84 matches, it seems to work for him.  

Mustafa’s dream is to compete internationally for Turkmenistan. There’s just one catch: as a refugee – recognised by UNHCR under its global mandate – he doesn’t have the documents necessary to compete under the Turkmen flag.  

Forced to flee 

Mustafa came to Turkmenistan nearly 30 years ago, when he was just six years old. Together with his mother, father and two older brothers, they fled widespread violence and human rights abuses in Afghanistan.  

Mustafa and his two brothers completed primary and secondary school, learning Turkmen and Russian languages, and making Turkmenistan their home. They also developed affinities with popular national sports which, for Mustafa, was kickboxing.   

While he was too young to have any memories from Afghanistan, he does remember settling in Turkmenistan. “When I went to school, it was very easy for me to understand the other children, my adaptation at school was very good,” says Mustafa. “I have a strong character.”  

And it’s that strong character that has served him so well over the years, from hobby fighter to professional kickboxer and trainer.

Mustafa poses for the camera with a jab, or a left-handed punch

Mustafa poses for the camera with a jab, or a left-handed punch 

A fighting spirit  

Mustafa competed in his first tournament at 18 years old, and has won 16 since then. With such a winning streak, in 2017 he was selected to represent Turkmenistan in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat. Like other athletes selected from across the country, he undertook intensive training for a full year before the competition.  

Just days before the opening ceremony however, he was disqualified – as a refugee, and not a citizen of Turkmenistan, the governing international sports committee said that Mustafa was not permitted to fight for Turkmenistan.  

“I was very upset that I could not participate,” says Mustafa. “But then, I became stronger.”  

To be a great kickboxer requires so much more than physical strength and stamina. “You need to have passion for this kind of sport,” says Mustafa. “Then you need good character, strong character, and to not be scared.” 

Mustafa channelled his disappointment into training harder.  

Of all 79 victories, he is most proud of winning the President’s Cup. Over 350 masters of kickboxing competed in the tournament. “I participated in these games, and won the President’s cup,” says Mustafa. “I was so proud of that. And then as I was a professional kickboxer, they gave me an additional cup of technical sportsman of kickboxing.” 

In addition to competing professionally, Mustafa trains over 150 pupils at the local sports club, including boys and girls, adults, and other professionals. Most recently, one of his pupils won an international Fight Nation Championship.  

“From when I was six years old, I have lived here,” says Mustafa. “We feel ourselves as Turkmen people.”  

“I feel thankful for Turkmenistan. People in Turkmenistan are very hospitable and friendly with me. Turkmenistan gave me this profession, and I thank God that I can earn money for my family,” says Mustafa. 

“I want to receive a passport from Turkmenistan. I want to compete for Turkmenistan”  

With boxing being a full contact sport, at 32-years old, Mustafa may not be able to compete professionally for too many more years. But, true to his character, his hope and resolve remain strong. “I am in the sport hall training every day, and I can keep my body in good shape,” he says.  

“As a person, I cannot achieve many of my goals, but with my pupils, I have already won many kinds of competitions. I feel I have won first place too.”  


Turkmenistan currently hosts 13 refugees, all recognised by UNHCR before the country established its national asylum system. All have been in the country at least 20 years, are now fluent in Turkmen, and are de facto integrated into their communities. Some – like Mustafa and his brother – are married to citizens of Turkmenistan, and now have children who are citizens. 

As they are not recognised as refugees by the government, however, nor citizens of Turkmenistan, all 13 remain in legal limbo and face barriers to employment, health care, education, and housing.  

UNHCR – tasked by UN Member States to support their protection of refugees – is encouraging the authorities of Turkmenistan to regularise their stay, enabling them to apply for citizenship, access basic rights and services, and contribute to the sustainable development of the country generously hosting them. In 2023, the government granted residence to two refugees. 

UNHCR is grateful for continued collaboration with the Government of Turkmenistan on this issue, and looks forward to working together to implement the 2024 joint workplan to protect forcibly displaced and stateless people.

This web story was originally posted on UNHCR's Central Asia website.