When Parfait Hakizimana first heard the news that he would be participating in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, he was overjoyed.
“I saw the doors open up for me,” he says, beaming with pride as he laces his shoes outside his house in Rwanda’s Mahama refugee camp.
For Parfait, 32, the journey to this pivotal moment has been plagued with challenges which started when he was just a young boy back in Burundi.
His life changed forever at the age of six when he was shot in the arm by men who attacked his hometown near the capital, Bujumbura. That was also the day when his mother was killed.
“It was the worst obstacle that I have ever faced. My heart was very broken. It’s a day I will never forget,” he says.
Parfait spent close to two years in hospital recuperating. He lost most of his left arm and has had to rely primarily on his right arm ever since.
"Sports helped me overcome the pain I went through."
Years later, when he was 19, his father died in a motorcycle accident.
Orphaned and alone, Parfait immersed himself in school and sports.
“Sports especially helped me overcome the pain I went through in my childhood,” he recalls. “It is protection for me.”
Indeed, Parfait exceled in sports and, in particular, martial arts. He discovered taekwondo and eventually started participating in various national and regional events, winning several trophies and medals.
When post-election violence broke out in Burundi shortly after the 2015 elections, Parfait was forced to leave everything behind and flee. He found safety in Rwanda, where he was pleased to find a vibrant sporting community. Within a year, he had started a taekwondo club and hundreds of Burundian refugees had signed up for classes.
Parfait is now a black belt and a certified coach, training 150 refugees, including children as young as six.
Sports is of huge interest in Mahama camp which hosts over 46,000 refugees, mainly from Burundi. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, started a ‘Sports for Protection’ programme in 2017 that aims to use the power of sport to engage the youth, protect children and foster inclusion and peaceful co-existence between refugees and their hosts.
Emilia Nuiselle Lobti, a protection officer with UNHCR based in Kirehe, says clubs such as Parfait’s are crucial to meeting the programme’s objectives.
“There are so many sports clubs here which shows how much refugees love sports. But sport is much more than a leisure activity. It’s an opportunity for them to be included and protected and a chance to heal from past trauma, develop and grow their skills,” she explains.
UNHCR’s partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), and other partners has seen refugees participate in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games both in Rio in 2016 and this year in Tokyo where the Paralympic Games will begin on Tuesday, 24 August. UNHCR is leading the global call for a world in which all displaced people, including those with disabilities, can equally access and participate in sport.
Parfait knows too well how important it is for refugees to have unhindered access to sports.
“Sports helps us to be courageous, even when life is difficult,” he says, adding that sports like taekwondo are particularly important as they also teach life skills.
“Taekwondo is my life and I like it because it helps me forget the difficult moments I have encountered in the past,” he says. “It teaches team spirit, courage and respect for our fellow human beings.”
"There are good things ahead!"
While he left Burundi alone, today, he is surrounded by a large taekwondo family that has embraced him as one of their own. When he is not training, he spends time with his wife Irene and 11-month old daughter Brinka.
His achievements have inspired the entire refugee community and as he prepares to take the stage in Tokyo, he is buoyed by their well wishes for him to be “their African champion”.
His coach, Zura Mushambokazi, has great confidence in him.
“Parfait works hard and is self-confident. He is capable and I have no doubt that he will do well,” she says.
His ultimate desire is to win a medal at the Paralympics and make refugees in Mahama and around the world proud.
“Life has been very complicated but now I see that if you are patient, you will get what you want,” he smiles. “There are good things ahead!”