Refugee Para athletes relish chance to compete at global level
Leading the parade of nations into the stadium in Tokyo, the Refugee Paralympic Team proudly kicked off the Opening Ceremony on Tuesday, representing both the 82.4 million people displaced globally and the estimated 12 million among them living with disabilities.
The six-person team, originally hailing from four nations and participating in five sports, were led by flag-bearers Alia Issa, whose family fled fighting in Syria and now lives in Greece, and Abbas Karimi, a swimmer from Afghanistan who has resettled in the United States.
Alia, 20, who is competing in the club throw, is the first female member of the Refugee Paralympic Team. At age 4, she contracted smallpox and a high fever damaged her brain. As a result, she now lives with physical and intellectual disabilities. In Tokyo, she is hoping to beat her personal best of 16.4 metres.
“It's a big honor for me,” Alia said at a press conference on Monday. “I want to be an example for all the refugees to follow their dreams.”
Alia said she also hoped to be an inspiration to other women living with disabilities. “When I started the club throw two years ago, I never believed that I would be part of the refugee team in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo,” she said. “I want to say to all women who have a disability, do not stay at home and every day try to go outside and do sports.”
The athletes waved as they entered the stadium, which — like the preceding Olympic Games — was mostly empty due to COVID-19 precautions, but filled with upbeat music amid a festive atmosphere.
This is the second time refugee athletes have participated in a Paralympics. The two Para athletes who competed in Rio in 2016 are competing again in Tokyo: Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein, now living in Greece, and Shahrad Nasajpour, a discus and shot put thrower from Iran living in the United States.
Al Hussein said he was deeply touched to receive an album of photos and messages of encouragement from Japanese students upon his arrival at the airport. “For me, this gift is like receiving a medal,” he said on Monday.
Rounding out the team — and arriving in Tokyo in a few days — are Parfait Hakizimana, a taekwondo competitor who lives in a refugee camp in Rwanda, and Anas Al Khalifa, a canoeist originally from Syria who now resides in Germany.
The International Paralympic Committee made a pledge at the Global Refugee Forum in 2019 to support a team of up to six athletes at Tokyo 2020. The IPC and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, agreed to work together to promote access to sporting facilities, organized sports and equal participation in sporting events for refugees.
The Refugee Paralympic Team also honours the legacy of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a refugee who fled Nazi Germany before the Second World War and found a new home to welcome him. He repaid that kindness by helping create the Paralympic Movement.
The team will help raise awareness about the more than 80 million people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, conflict or persecution — up from 65 million displaced globally in 2016.
When asked why it was important to have a Refugee Paralympic Team, Shahrad said “inclusion” was the short answer.
"I want to give hope to people."
Despite coming from various backgrounds and using different languages, the Para athletes felt a kinship with one another, said Ibrahim, who has been training in the pool with Abbas since arriving in Tokyo.
“In a family there is no need for words. When I met Abbas, I felt like I had met an old friend. I felt the same when I met the other refugee athletes,” he said. “I want to give hope to people, and I hope that the refugee team can keep gaining strength as we move to the Paris [Games]” in 2024.
To welcome the refugee Para athletes and wish them success, one of Tokyo’s wards that is serving as their host town, Bunkyo-ku, presented them with more than 3,000 blue paper airplanes folded by students at 21 schools in the ward, and then strung together by retirees.
Many had messages written in or on them, such as, “Give it all you’ve got!” and “Never give up, keep up your hope!”
In Japan, people associate imagery of a paper airplane with sending a message or a dream, and blue, meant to represent peace, is also the colour of the United Nations and UNHCR emblems.
"Go for gold!"
One fifth-grader wrote a message specifically for Ibrahim: “I love swimming and water sports, so that’s why I want to send this message to Ibrahim. I was surprised to learn about an athlete like you who is a refugee but competes in the Paralympics. I imagine the war experience was painful but please do your best at the Paralympics. Go for gold!”
Due to the pandemic, Bunkyo-ku will be unable to physically host the para-athletes, but before and during the games, it has been holding workshops on the global refugee crisis and an online session to engage with the athletes.
"Although it is difficult to hold physical activities, working closely with UNHCR I hope to raise awareness about the global displacement issue among Bunkyo Ward residents as well as the Japanese public — and specifically children — through our host town initiatives," Mayor Hironobu Narisawa said in discussion with UNHCR Japan Representative Karen Farkas.
Sport has proved a huge source of motivation, hope and self-discipline for the refugee Para athletes.
The Paralympics offer an opportunity for athletes with physical, vision or intellectual impairments to compete at an international level. A classification system groups eligible athletes according to their impairment by breaking them down into 10 different categories, such as impaired muscle power or vision impairment.
Taekwondo competitor Parfait at age 6 lost his mother during an attack on his hometown in Burundi and was severely wounded in his left arm by a gunshot that led to a disability. As a teenager, he was introduced to taekwondo, and immediately took to it — partly because tribal identity made no difference.
“Sports especially helped me overcome the pain I went through in my childhood,” he recalls. “It is protection for me.”
Later, he fled his home country amid post-election violence and found safety at a the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. Within a year, Parfait, now 32, started a taekwondo club, where he now trains 150 refugees.
Abbas, who was born without arms and will be competing in the 50-meter butterfly and backstroke races, fled from Afghanistan at age 16 – a risky venture in which he was smuggled in a truck and then trekked through the mountains for three days in freezing temperatures.
Eventually he got to Turkey, where he stayed for four years. During that time, he found a pool where he could train. He believed that swimming could give him opportunities and that he could be a role model for the younger generation.
“When I die, I want people to know that Abbas Karimi, without arms, he never gave up on his dreams and his goals,” he said in an interview with Paralympics.com. “I can do something to change the world.”
Alphonso Davies, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador who plays football for FC Bayern and Canada and grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana, told the six athletes in a congratulatory message that they were all role models with the power to inspire others.
“Make no mistake, what you are about to do in Tokyo will change people’s lives,” Davies said. “There are going to be young people who will take up sport because of you. There will be refugees who, through watching you succeed, will believe they can too. And you know what, those people are the next nurses, teachers and scientists. That’s change starting with sport.”