Former Iranian refugee represents the United States as karate world champion
In the 1980’s, Soolmaz Abooali’s parents found themselves in a precarious situation. Both were activists and making a future for their family in Iran was becoming increasingly difficult. When she was four, Soolmaz and her mother made the dangerous journey to Pakistan and eventually to Bangladesh in search of safety.
With the help of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Soolmaz and her family received funding and assistance. While the modest support offered was of use, her family had to find scrappy ways to not only survive but attempt to thrive.
“My parents made it doable for me.” She said. “Fruits were expensive and hard to come by in Bangladesh, but with whatever money they had they’d buy an apple and slice it into seven pieces, so I’d have a piece of fruit every day of the week.”
It was simple experiences like this that made Soolmaz realize what conflict felt like. “I really had this mind, body, and spirit awareness. I knew that something was not right. Something was not safe or accessible. We were always having to fight for something.”
The awareness of conflict manifested itself in various ways. She remembers the weariness in which they approached people, questioning their motives and where they could be from. Yet it was this very feeling that allowed a sincere enchantment with martial art movies. How the heroes of the story would find themselves in an ominous situation and battle their way to victory - a concept Soolmaz could relate to at such a young age.
“For me, in my child imagination, karate came to represent a way out of conflict.”
Soolmaz’s introduction to karate came initially from her father who had practiced martial arts. As a young child, he had promised Soolmaz that when they were in a safe place where they could start rebuilding their lives, he would put her in a karate class. Years later when they were resettled in Canada, Soolmaz’s father kept his word. At first it was her parents who kept her motivated to continue training, then slowly karate started to mean so much more to her personally.
“It represented a way for me to use my own sense of power with what I had to resolve conflict. It kind of took off from there.”
A straightforward list of Soolmaz’s karate accolades and accomplishments hardly do them justice. Through unimaginable odds as a refugee in Bangladesh dreaming of taking a karate class, to now a 14-time US Champion, one-time World Champion, gold medalist across all categories in form (Kata) and fighting (Kumite) events, and a member of Team USA at a national and global level for the last 14 years, her journey is one of perseverance and grit.
“The more I practiced, the more I realized it was making me feel really strong. I sacrificed more, I put more time and focus into it,” she said, “and the more I achieved the more I felt a deeper sense of confidence.”
While karate gave Soolmaz an outlet to test herself in conflict simulated scenarios, it also provided a sense of community, one that as a refugee had immeasurable value.
“Because we have to leave everything behind and we come with almost nothing but ourselves, our skills and our passions to a new place, feeling a sense of belonging is huge for refugees. And I think that’s what karate has given me. It’s given me this space where I can belong,” she said. “The relationships I’ve built have been fundamental and I wouldn’t be where I am without my coach or my teammates.”
Among the impressive accomplishments Soolmaz has under her karate belt, one has evaded her reach out of pure omission of the art in one of the most internationally well-known sporting competitions in the world: the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee selects twenty-five core sports that are mandatory events in Olympic competitions. However, the host organizing committee has the ability to add sports they believe represent the values of the games.
For the first time, karate will make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For the second time, a team of refugee athletes will compete at the summer games as part of the IOC’s Refugee Olympic Team. Two of those refugee athletes will compete for one of the 8 medals in karate. Wael Shueb from Sryia in the Kata category, and Hamoon Derafshipour from Iran in Kumite.
“Everyone needs inspiration, especially refugees,”
“Everyone needs inspiration, especially refugees,” Soolmaz said. “I think the Olympic refugee team is one way of how that’s done for refugees.”
Soolmaz’s story, from refugee to world champion, instilled a passion for further understanding the intersection of sport, conflict, and diplomacy. In 2019, Soolmaz obtained her PhD in conflict resolution from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, another testament to the possibility to succeed against all odds, to find a sense of belonging, and find a sense of community.
“This is home. I’ve been able to not only take but to give back. And that’s what makes this country beautiful and valuable for everyone of any background,” she said. “I hope some part of my story will resonate with others and especially those who are looking in from the outside to see how they can play a role to help refugees. At the end of the day we are all in this together.”