Two refugee athletes led out the flag parade of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony on Tuesday, emerging from the tunnel into the joy and pandemonium unfolding at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo. The record books will note them as part of the first organised Refugee Paralympic Team, with a total of six athletes hailing from four countries — Afghanistan, Burundi, Syria and Iran. Let history also note that their journeys to Japan’s capital have been as remarkable as any in these Games.
At Rio 2016, two athletes competed as part of the Independent Paralympic Athletes’ Team, participating as one refugee and one asylee and becoming the first refugee team all but in name. However, this time around, the team has swelled to six members, competing in five sports, and will take part as the first refugee squad of its kind to be fully supported by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
Ahead of the Games, ESPN spoke to all six athletes in the refugee team to share their often heart-breaking journeys to Tokyo and the motivations behind their relentless display of resilience, hope and ambition. Here are their stories.
Parfait Hakizimana – Taekwondo (K44 class)
At the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda, hordes of children wearing white taekwondo doboks gather six times a week on the sandy basketball court and look toward their instructor, Parfait Hakizimana. He wears a black belt, the one he earned in his home country of Burundi before fleeing in 2015.
Hakizimana’s left arm is permanently debilitated from a severe gunshot wound he suffered as a child in 1996, as the violence of the country’s civil war came to his village. His mother died in the shooting that day, while his late father took 7-year-old Parfait to the hospital, where he spent two years recovering. Hakizimana escaped Burundi 20 years later, fearing the same fate as his mother, becoming one of the first settlers at Mahama, now Rwanda’s largest refugee camp. In 2017, it was home to 55,000 people of whom 51% were children. “You have to go a long way to walk and find water and feed your family,” Hakizimana says. “It’s not easy.” He is the only athlete on the team still living in a refugee camp. He resides there with his wife, Irene, and one-year-old daughter, Brinka. “Together, with my taekwondo family, I can manage it,” he says.
After the Games and the bright neon lights of Tokyo, Hakizimana will travel almost 12,000km to return to Mahama. He hopes to do so with a medal. “It will bring happiness not only to the children at the camp but also to all the refugees because this is our own achievement,” he says.
Televisions in on-camp health centres will play footage of Hakizimana’s contests, while the restricted access to internet through the community library will mean his friends and fellow coaches can spread the news of his exploits to the students. Maybe they will catch a glimpse of his performance. He often dreams that one day he will see one of them follow in his footsteps. “Many of the children have sent me messages,” Hakizimana says. “Most of them said they pray for me to win.”
Alia Issa – Club Throw (F32 class)
Alia Issa wears a gold wheat chain necklace with a large ‘M’ pendant attached at the bottom for her father, Mohament. Before she was born, he worked for four years as a tailor in Athens, Greece, sending money back to his wife and four children in Syria before he could bring them over, too.
Issa will be the first female refugee to compete at the Paralympic Games, doing so in the club throw. Family has been key to her journey to Tokyo. They were there for her when she suffered brain damage as a four-year-old after being hospitalised with smallpox, leaving her with difficulty speaking and needing support. The family came together, again, when her older sister was diagnosed with cancer, which she beat, until even worse news came: Mohament was diagnosed with a more aggressive cancer. He died in 2017. Issa was just 16 years old. “I have been thinking of him every day since I lost him,” she says. Issa bought the necklace earlier this year to remind her of her father.
After Mohament’s death, with no option to go back to Syria due to the conflict there, the family successfully applied for refugee status. Issa was introduced to club throw soon after. When she quickly fell in love with the sport, she began training four times a week, competing at the Greek National Championships and international competitions. But more is to come — soon, Issa knows, she will be a Paralympian.
“If my father was still alive, I’m pretty sure he would be very proud,” she says, her father’s initial dangling from her neck, next to her heart.
Abbas Karimi – Swimming (S5 class)
In 2015, when semi-retired Portland-based high school wrestling coach Mike Ives saw a video of Abbas Karimi swimming on Facebook, he jumped into action, sending him a message to ask how he could help. Karimi was in the midst of a three-year spell at four different refugee camps in Turkey. At one time, he would take an hour-long bus ride out of camp each morning to reach a swimming pool, where he would train before heading back for lunch. Karimi would repeat that trip each afternoon. Exhausted, he would sleep for most of the four hours of accumulated daily bus journeys. “I tolerated it because I really wanted to be a champion,” he says.
Karimi, who fled from Afghanistan to Turkey in 2013, was born without arms. He has dreamt of reaching the Paralympic Games for almost a decade. Yet during those tiring days in Turkey, it seemed further away than ever. That’s where Ives comes in. The pair chatted over social media for a while. “He never asked for money, which is rare,” Ives says. “He just wanted someone to talk to.” The American coach sent letters to the United Nations’ office in Ankara, Turkey, pleading with them to give Karimi the papers he would need to compete internationally. Eventually, he offered for Karimi to come live with him, which he did for four years. “I call him my American father. He’s everything to me,” Karimi says. “Without him, I wouldn’t make it here.”
The 24-year-old is perhaps the best positioned in the team to win a medal, which would be the first-ever won by any refugee at either an Olympic or Paralympic Games, and nobody is more aware of that fact than Karimi himself. “If I win, when I win, then it will be not just for me but for the 82 million refugees or displaced people around the world and 12 million refugees with disabilities,” he says. “It will bring hope.”
Ibrahim Al Hussein – Swimming (SB8, S9 class)
Ibrahim Al Hussein tries not to think about the past, yet what he has endured is “unforgettable.” He only needs to glance down at his legs to see the scars of his homeland. In 2012, as the Syrian civil war fanned across the country, his parents and his 13 siblings fled their hometown of Deir al-Zor toward safety. Al Hussein stayed behind. What came next changed the course of his life: Al Hussein watched as his friend was shot by a sniper; he ran to save him before an explosion sounded, costing him the bottom of his right leg. “He screamed: ‘Help me, Ibrahim. Please, help me.’ I had no other options but to help him whatever the price,” he says.
Al Hussein had always aspired to be an elite swimmer just like his father, who once won two silver medals at the Asian Championships. He eventually escaped to Greece, and was back in the pool soon after, competing again. That’s when his life began to change. He was asked to carry the 2016 Olympic torch through a refugee accommodation facility after being spotted in a swimming competition. Word of the event reached the IPC headquarters, and Al Hussein was asked 10 days later if he wished to compete as one of the two independent athletes in Rio. He accepted, and he proudly carried the Paralympic flag into the Maracana stadium at the opening ceremony.
His mission since 2016 has been one of compassion. Al Hussein started a wheelchair basketball team for refugees in Athens, and he is in close contact with dozens of other refugee athletes across Europe. “Refugees have the persistence and the capabilities to pursue their dreams and achievements,” he says.
Shahrad Nasajpour – Discus (F37 class)
Months after arriving in San Francisco in 2015 as a political asylee from Iran, Shahrad Nasajpour picked up his phone and sent an email to the IPC. He had heard that the 2016 Olympic Games would feature a refugee team, a group of individuals tasked to “send a message of hope.” Nasajpour, who was born with cerebral palsy, wondered how long it would be until the Paralympics would follow suit. When he did not receive a response, he kept trying, finding the email individual addresses of IPC directors, but he was eventually informed there were no plans for a Refugee Paralympic Team for the Rio Games. But, when the IPC saw Al Hussein carrying the Olympic torch in Athens, they pushed ahead with the idea, and they knew exactly who to call when they needed another athlete. Finally, Nasajour was going to be a Paralympian.
Walking out into the Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony, he thought of the journey he had been on: the long, sometimes aimless walks around unfamiliar American cities, the loneliness, trying to get by with broken English. In Tokyo, he plans to harness that experience to help his teammates. “We speak different languages and have different cultures,” he says. “But we’ll have a strong relationship.”
Anas Al Khalifa – Paracanoe (KL1, VL2 class)
Anas Al Khalifa did not harbour dreams of competing in Tokyo until recently. It has been two-and-a-half years since he fell from a roof in Halle, Germany when installing solar panels, a job that meant he was able to send money home to his family (his parents and only brother) in Syria. He had endured hell in reaching the European country in the first place, making the treacherous journey from a Syrian refugee camp, first to Turkey, then Greece and finally onto Germany, hitchhiking, jumping onto trains and spending long nights in the woods. “The journey of death,” Al Khalifa calls it.
When the accident happened, he could not bear to tell his parents. He only told his brother Abdu Almalik that he was paralysed from the waist down and now confined to a wheelchair. Al Khalifa fell in love with paracanoeing when he was introduced to it by a friend of his physiotherapist. He threw himself into the sport. His coach, former Bulgarian champion Ognyana Dusheva, was impressed when he first fell into the icy-cold water and vowed to return the next day to train again.
Al Khalifa’s parents called in December to deliver some grave news: His brother had been killed in a skirmish despite desperately trying to avoid the war. Al Khalifa tried to quit paracanoe when he was told. He would have done, too, had it not been for Dusheva’s insistence. It was then that he told his parents about his injury, that he again turned his focus to the Paralympic Games, and that he refuelled his motivations in the face of grief.
“My message to the world and to myself is that as long as you have a dream you have to fight for the result,” he says. “You can do it as long as you believe in yourself.”