Refugee athletes inspire in world of sports – Middle East Monitor
They say sport has the power to change lives.
What might sound like a cliché to many, holds immense truth for people like Marzieh Hamidi and Ahmad Badreddin Wais.
It was sport that gave Hamidi and Wais a refuge from the tribulations of a life defined by war and conflict, factors completely out of their control.
However, what did give them a semblance of control over their destiny was sport, combined with sheer hard work, grit and a passion for their discipline of choice.
Both Hamidi and Wais are refugees, among the tens of millions around the world driven out of their homes and homelands by the evils of men, or the forces of nature.
On World Refugee Day, marked globally on 20 June, they shared their inspirational stories with Anadolu – stories that may have played out thousands of miles apart, but are equally powerful testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.
Marzieh Hamidi: ‘Born a refugee’
Hamidi was born into an Afghan refugee family in Iran, 21 years ago.
It was in Iran that she first took up taekwondo, a sport in which she is now widely considered a rising star.
Hamidi and her family returned to Afghanistan in 2019 with high hopes, but fate had other plans in store.
“I was born in Iran as a refugee. When I moved to my country, I moved with a lot of hope. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to my country. I will be in the national team of my country’,” Marzieh told Anadolu.
In August 2021, two years after her return, the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan.
She was living in the capital, Kabul, but soon made the difficult choice of leaving her homeland.
“I left Afghanistan because of the Taliban. They said that women are not allowed to study, to do sport or to do whatever they want. They said that women should stay at home … everything was punished,” she said.
Hamidi’s coach soon told her that girls could no longer continue with their training. She saw women being barred from sports in the country and how her fellow athletes were forced to abandon all that they loved.
“When I went outside in the street and I saw the Taliban, it was more painful for me because, every day, I could see what’s happening in my country to my people,” she said.
Hamidi was evacuated to France a couple of months later, and now lives in Paris.
She holds an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Refugee Athlete Scholarship and is aiming to join the Refugee Olympic Team for the 2024 Paris Games.
Her journey in taekwondo began with some encouragement from a friend at her school in Iran.
“When I started taekwondo, it felt like something that was more than just fun for me. I felt like something was going out of my body, like the stress and pain,” she said.
“I won a silver medal in my first fight. My coach told me, if you continue like this, you can have a good future in taekwondo. That’s when I chose to be a professional taekwondo athlete, and I’ve given all my life to taekwondo.”
She considers herself particularly fortunate to have a family that supports her and is proud of her achievements.
Her eyes are now set on the Olympics, a goal made possible by the Refugee Olympic Team initiative launched by the IOC to bring attention to the global crisis of forced displacement.
“I came here (to France) for that. I left my country because I wanted to be in the Olympics,” said Hamidi, who competes in the women’s under 57-kilogram category
“I want a medal for myself, my country and all the women of Afghanistan. Also, I want to help people, the refugees, especially the women in my country and around the world.”
As she continues her training in Paris, Hamidi spoke about the challenges that she and other refugee athletes have to navigate.
“It’s not easy to leave your home, to start from the bottom and rebuild your life,” she said.
“As a refugee athlete, when I want to go somewhere out of Europe to compete, they would ask for a visa, and maybe they don’t give me the visa. This is the problem that I face as a refugee.”
For the future, Hamidi hopes to, one day, return to her country.
“My soul and heart are in Afghanistan. I represent my country, but many people are against me because I am against the Taliban. So, I represent the refugee team, but the refugee team is like my country. I represent all refugees.”
Ahmad Badreddin Wais: ‘Living the Olympic dream’
Wais, 32, is a professional road cyclist who was born in Aleppo, back when the north-western Syrian city knew peace.
He was a university student when the civil war, which has claimed countless lives and left the country in ruins, erupted in 2011.
Three years later, Wais had no other option but to leave Syria, taking the perilous sea route to Greece.
He was eventually granted refugee status in Switzerland, where he has been living for eight years.
He competed in the World Championship four times, and acquired an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship, before being selected for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“That was very special. I had always dreamed about it and then I was living it,” Wais, who competed in the Olympic individual time trial event, told Anadolu.
“As a refugee athlete, you don’t have a host country or federation. With the Refugee Olympic team, you find support. They helped me a lot. For the Olympics, you have to be mentally ready.”
Wais said leaving his homeland for a foreign country was a big risk, but one he had to take.
Life in Switzerland was challenging, with no family or friends and an immense language barrier.
“Sports changed me a lot, improving my health and enabling me to make new friends. It gives you a balance in your life,” Wais said.
Some of his family members are still in Syria, including his mother, whom he has not seen since leaving the country.
“I hope I can go to Aleppo, one day,” he said.
For now, Wais is gunning for the Paris Olympics, where he hopes to make his mark in a sport that he says has already given him so much.