The six members of the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Paralympic Team | Photo: getty/UNHCR/IPC
The six members of the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Paralympic Team | Photo: getty/UNHCR/IPC

The International Paralympic Committee has revealed the Refugee Paralympic Team for the upcoming Tokyo Games. Six athletes with a disability, including the first female one, will compete in athletics, swimming, canoeing and taekwondo. The announcement comes three weeks after the presentation of the Refugee Olympic Team.

With less than two months to go until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) on Wednesday (June 30) announced the six athletes who will compete under the Paralympic flag in late August and early September in Japan.

Hailing from Afghanistan, Burundi, Iran and Syria, the five men and one woman represent four sports -- athletics, swimming, canoeing, taekwondo -- and currently live and train in Germany, Greece, Rwanda and the US.

Canoeist Anas Al Khalifa, who now lives in Germany after fleeing the war in Syria, says making the refugee team is something he could have never imagined. "There was so much destruction around me and the war, going through refugee camps and having to jump from border to border," he said.

Like the 29 members of the Refugee Olympic Team, which was revealed at the beginning of June, the Paralympic squad represents the more than 82 million displaced people around the world, 12 million of whom live with a disability. 

"This past year has been especially challenging for refugee athletes, but they are no stranger to toughness in their lives," said the team's Chef de Mission Ileana Rodriguez, herself a refugee who represented the US at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in swimming. "Showing the very best of human spirit, they will be a team like no other at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games." The group will be supported and managed in Tokyo by six coaches and four IOC and UNHCR officials.

The Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT) is the second refugee squad created by the IPC. At the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, a two-person "Independent Paralympic Athletes Team" competed in swimming and men's discus, without winning any medals. Both athletes -- Syrian Ibrahim Al Hussein and Iranian Shahrad Nasajpour -- are also part of the RPT.

'I swim for all of them'

Ibrahim Al Hussein has come a long way riddled with obstacles and sacrifices on his path to becoming a two-time Paralympian.

Hussein, now 33, began swimming at the age of five in the Euphrates river, which passes by his hometown of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. He had dreams of being an Olympic swimmer.

In 2012, Hussein ran outside to help a friend shot by a sniper, only to be injured himself in a bomb blast. His right leg was amputated from the middle of the calf. In 2014, he made the dangerous journey to Greece on a rubber boat with 80 people. He was in a wheelchair at the time. Unlike many other refugees who traveled north to wealthier European countries, he stayed in Greece.

After living on the streets of Athens for a fortnight, Al-Hussein was directed by a fellow Syrian to Angelos Chronopoulos, a Greek doctor who gave him a prosthetic limb. Acquiring refugee status in 2015, he was thus able to find work and start to pick up the pieces.

"I don't swim for myself," he told news agency Reuters in early May. "There are about 80 million refugees in the world. I swim for all of them."

First female Paralympic refugee athlete

Athens is also the current home of Alia Issa, whose father left Syria for Greece in 1996 in a search of a better life for his family. After working as a tailor for four years by himself, the father had enough money to bring over his wife and their four children at the time. Issa was born in Greece shortly after that in 2001.

When Issa was four, she came down with smallpox and was hospitalized. A dangerously high fever caused damage to her brain and left her in a wheelchair with high support needs and some difficulty speaking.

"I was bullied by some of the kids," she told the IPC in May. "But it didn't stop me from wanting to go to school. I liked school a lot."

In 2017, she started attending a school only for students with disabilities. "I didn't feel different anymore. At my primary school, I was the only one with a disability," she said. Another game changer was her exposure to the physical education classes.

"Being introduced to sport … was very important to me. I felt stronger and more confident with my body and mobility."

After trying boccia and other sports, one of her teachers noticed her passion and strength. As a result, he introduced her to club throw two years ago, which instantly fascinated her.

According to the IPC, the club throw is a "discipline for athletes who do not have a strong enough grip to hold a javelin, shot put or discuss. They hold a club that looks like a bowling pin, made out of wood. The athletes sit in a wheelchair or a platform and aim to toss the club as far as they can. Some throw forwards, backwards, even sideways depending on their disability."

As the first female Paralympic refugee athlete, Alia says she's carrying a special message for women with disabilities to Tokyo. "Do not stay inside your homes. Get active. It will give you your independence and a way to be included in society."

The Refugee Paralympic Team

In October 2020, the IPC announced it would take up to six refugees from around the world to form the Refugee Paralympic Team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, slated to begin on August 24.

According to Philip Dorward, head of communications at the IPC, the Tokyo squad is the first group where the IPC supported refugee athletes "on a journey over the cycle of a Game," so four years during normal times, "and created a dedicated support team around them."

Eligibility for the RPT not only required "confirmed refugee status in accordance with international, national and regional law," Dorward told InfoMigrants. RPT hopefuls also needed to classify for International Sport Federations events and meet "minimum performance standards."

According to Dorward, the six candidates, all of whom made the cut, received financial support for equipment, training, competitions, coaching as well as additional needs, such as physiotherapy.

The budget for all costs related to competitions has mainly been supplied by commercial partners such as Panasonic and Airbnb. The latter sponsor has also been enabling several of the athletes to earn a small honorarium by hosting online experiences where the athletes "share their stories with the world," Dorward said.

What's more, the IPC also works closely with UNHCR to "send a strong message to all refugees and others forced from their homes." Among other things, RPT athlete Abbas Karimi was recently named a "High Profile Supporter" of the UNHCR.

"While all refugees face significant challenges, those with disabilities are frequently at heightened risk and face additional barriers to accessing assistance, services, and opportunities," the IPC said in a press release about the announcement.

While the support for the athletes continues until the end of the Games, which means all costs for them and one coach each is met, plans for after September 5 are currently "under review", IPC's Dorward told InfoMigrants.

Leaving everything behind

What all six refugee athletes have in common are the sacrifices they had to make in order to get to where they are today, particularly when it comes to leaving behind friends and families.

Swimmer Abbas Karimi was in the United States when his father died, canoeist Anas Al Khalifa has not seen his parents for ten years, swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein says he doesn't want to go back to Syria. And Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour, who was born with cerebral palsy that left him with some mobility limitations, left Iran in early 2016 to seek asylum in the US.

"These athletes exemplify how change starts with sport: they have suffered life-changing injuries, fled for their safety and undertaken dangerous journeys," said IPC President Andrew Parsons. "But despite the many barriers put in their way, they have become elite athletes ready to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games."

The sixth member of the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Paralympic Team is Parfait Hakizimana. The only athlete living in a refugee camp, Hakizimana fled from violence and unrest in his central African home country Burundi in October 2015.

Born in 1988, his life changed forever in 1996 when his mother was killed in front of him in an attack on the internally displaced camp where they were living at the time. Hakizimana himself received a severe gunshot injury that rendered his left arm permanently debilitated.

But he's been running taekwondo training in the camp. Taking up Taekwondo at the age of 16, "saved me and lifted my spirits," he said; but four years later, his father died in a motorcycle accident.

Still, he prevailed. Two years later, in 2010, he got his black belt and opened a Taekwondo club in Burundi. Then, another conflict uprooted him once again: The increasing violence in his country made him escape to Rwanda in 2015.

A year later, he used his experience from Burundi to set up a Taekwondo club in his new home -- the Mahama Refugee Camp near the border with Tanzania. According to the IPC, Hakizimana now trains around 150 people in the camp including children as young as six.

"Refugees don't have a lot. But sport helps them forget their troubles," he told the IPC. "Everyone respects Olympians and Paralympians, so I love showing others that don't know my abilities."


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