Born without arms, shot during childhood, fleeing war zones: Refugee Paralympic Team’s inspiring stories

Refugee Paralympics Team logoThe Refugee Olympic Team made its first appearance at the 2016 games. Ten athletes, hailing from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo took part in the Rio event five years ago. And now, for the first time, a Refugee Paralympic Team is competing in Tokyo. The athletes, one woman and five men, will compete in a range of sports including athletics, swimming, canoeing and taekwondo. Two members of the team, Shahrad Nasajpour and Ibrahim Al Hussein, took part in the 2016 Paralympics as Independent Paralympic Athletes. Club thrower Alia Issa becomes the first female to be named part of a refugee team at the Paralympic Games. The team is completed by taekwondo star Parfait Hakizimana, canoeist Anas Al Khalifa and swimmer Abbas Karimi.

Meet the team:

Abbas Karimi (Swimming)

Abbas Karimi
Refugee Paralympic swimmer Abbas Karimi (Pic: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

He was born in Afghanistan missing both arms. Aged 16 he fled the country, leaving his family behind, to escape the conflict. He first flew to Iran, and then paid smugglers to take him across the border into Turkey. He lived in four different camps, and it was during this period he was contacted by Mike Ives, a former wrestling coach who was helping refugee athletes.

Karimi eventually settled in the US. In 2017, Karimi went to the Mexico World Para Swimming Championships and saw his swimming career take off with a silver medal. At his second World Championship in London in 2019, he finished sixth in the 50m butterfly.

Shahrad Nasajpour (Athletics)

Shahrad Nasajpour
US-based Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour at the Rio Paralympics

He is an Iranian refugee living in Arizona who was born with cerebral palsy. He has always been passionate about sport and eventually represented his country in discus in a number of competitions including the 2011 IWAS World Junior Championship in Dubai.

However, in 2015 he left the team and fled Iran to seek asylum in the US. This was because of strict rules imposed on the athletes including forcing them to attend church, despite personal beliefs.

Ibrahim Al Hussein (Swimming)

Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein
Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein

Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al Hussein began swimming when he was five in his hometown of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. Nine years ago he was injured in a bomb blast trying to help a friend who had been shot by a sniper. His right leg was amputated. Just two years later he made the dangerous journey to Greece on a dinghy with 80 others.

After living on the streets of Athens, Al Hussein was helped by Greek doctor Angelos Chronopoulos who gave him a prosthetic limb. In 2015, he managed to get refugee status.

Alia Issa (Athletics)

Alia Issa
Alia Issa during a news conference for the Refugee Paralympic Team

Alia Issa makes history as the team’s first female member. Her father left Syria for Greece in 1996 and moved the rest of his family over four years later. Issa was born in 2001 and when she was four she suffered brain damage after contracting smallpox.

In 2017, she started at a school for students with disabilities where she took part in a number of sports eventually leading to her focusing on the club throw two years ago.

Parfait Hakizimana (Taekwondo)

Parfait Hakizimana
Parfait Hakizimana is the only athlete still living in a refugee camp. Pic UNHCR

Parfait Hakizimana is the only athlete still living in a refugee camp, in Rwanda. When he was just six years old his mother was killed in an attack on an internally displaced camp in Burundi where they were living at the time. After being shot himself the same day, he was left with a permanently damaged arm. A few years later, when he was 11, his father died in a motorcycle accident.

Hakizimana fled Burundi in 2015. His previous knowledge of taekwondo saw him set up a club in his new home – the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda near the border with Tanzania. He now trains around 150 people in the camp including children as young as six.

Anas Al Khalifa (Canoeing)

Anas Al Khalifa
Anas Al Khalifa tried canoeing for the first time last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pic: Getty/Reinaldo Coddou

Anas Al Khalifa was born in Hama, Syria, in 1993. In 2011, his family were separated at the start of the war. Al Khalifa ended up living in a refugee camp on the border with Turkey for two years before fleeing over the border. After a year, he took the dangerous route through Greece to Germany.

After a while he started work installing solar panels on roofs. But on 7 December 2018, he was working on a two-storey building when he slipped and fell down to the ground suffering an incomplete spinal cord injury. One of the physiotherapists at the hospital suggested he try para canoe. And so, just over a year ago, before the COVID pandemic hit, Al Khalifa tried canoeing for the first time.
#Paralympic Games
#UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency


Refugee Paralympics Team


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