Asif Sultani was born in Afghanistan in 1995, but was forced to flee to Iran when he was just seven years old. There, he faced persecution and bullying for his refugee status and his life was never settled. At the young age of just 16, he was then sent back to Afghanistan, arriving there as a persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, a teenager, a refugee and as someone unfamiliar with the country that was once his home: “[there were] people looking at me differently in my own country […] we have been persecuted for so many years by different groups. So they kidnap us and kill us. And this is a common thing. And coming in Afghanistan was like, you know, people, soldiers walking on the street with large guns. That was just terrifying. It was like in movies going a hundred years back.”
Sultani was luckily able to once again escape, fleeing to Dubai, then Indonesia and then Christmas Island by boarding overcrowded boats that were dangerous and unfit for the amount of people on them. Christmas Island is just a small island in the Indian Ocean that was home to a highly criticised Australian-owned immigration detention centre where Sultani lived for a period of time. It was both there and in the other immigration detention centres in Australia and Tasmania where he was moved to, that he dedicated his time to building his physical fitness. He even managed to break the world record of 2000 sit-ups in a row, reaching 2300. And finally, 11 years after he first became a refugee, he was allowed into Australia where he kept training and soon became a Karate champion.
Image credit: Eurosport
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Farid Walizadeh was born two years after Sultani but experienced a similarly traumatic journey before becoming a boxer. He and his family escaped Afghanistan when he was very young, but after a number of tragic circumstances with his own parents and then his adoptive parents, he was left to smuggle out of Pakistan and along different borders with his adoptive father. They spent countless nights hiding from police and brutal thieves who would target refugees, struggling to find food and shelter, watching people in their group die in traumatic circumstances, trekking across mountains, until finally arriving at the Iran-Turkey border. Without money to pay smugglers to get into Turkey, he was instead given bags of “sugar” to smuggle for them as payment:
“[the smuggler] suggested to me that I can have two kilo of some sugar in my pocket. And then when you arrive, you give to the right person. I said, okay. And I really believed that it's sugar because it was white inside the plastic” Walizadeh explained.
When he arrived at the border, however, border guards caught him and he was severely punished and sent to prison. He was nine years old.
After his release, Walizadeh – like Sultani – began to find his outlet in martial arts, training hard in Taekwondo while he lived as a refugee in Turkey. But again, like Sultani, he faced bullying and exclusion from others for being a refugee. So much so that when he defeated a local gym owner’s son in a competitive fight, the owner and his friends beat up Walizadeh so badly that he ended up in a coma. Fortunately, he survived, and despite warnings from doctors to never fight again, he found a local gym and took up boxing before being finally offered asylum in either Portugal or the United States. His overriding knowledge of the USA was that of guns, military tanks and war, whereas with Portugal, his only knowledge about the country was of Cristiano Ronaldo. He chose Portugal.
While both stories are now of two young athletes fighting to become world champions in their respective sports, their journeys are harrowing, and a reminder of the trauma that refugees face not only while they flee conflict, but also when they arrive in a different country looking for safety. The British Red Cross conducted a survey into hate crimes and harassment aimed at refugees in the UK and found that some refugees faced hate crimes as often as twice a month. This hostility is also reflected in general public opinion, with only 29% of Britons believing that people fleeing war or persecution were “good for the country”. To put this into perspective, this figure was less than “any other EU or anglophone country in the survey” with “almost half of Canadians (45%) and French (44%)” respondents expressing support for refugees.
To help combat this hostility and provide support and opportunities to refugees, the International Olympic Committee announced in 2015 that the Olympics would create an Olympic team for refugees who were struggling to represent any other country. IOC president Thomas Bach reiterated the importance of this, stating; “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society”. The creation of this team was a dream come true for both Sultani and Walizadeh, and both were offered IOC scholarships to help them pursue this dream. Sultani reflected on the emotional moment he found out:
“It was like a dream. As a refugee, we lost everything, and the only thing that keep us going is our hope and dreams.
I cried really, really loud because for me being a refugee scholarship holder, it's just a massive responsibility because therefore I'm not representing myself. I'm representing millions of people that has been displaced all over the world.”
The IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016
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Sultani and Walizadeh’s journeys now have happy endings, with even more success and happiness still yet to come. But the trauma that they have experienced as refugees cannot be forgotten. It is a reminder that we have to do all that we can to ensure that other refugees are being given the same love and support that Sultani and Walizadeh are now. Their stories have resolved beautifully, but we have to remember that Sultani and Walizadeh’s stories are just two out of 82 million.
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