Across the globe, 82 million people have been forced to flee their home nations due to war, persecution and human rights abuses. Of those 82 million refugees, 12 million live with a disability. And of those 12 million, six will compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games as members of the Refugee Paralympic Team.
Syrian refugees Ibrahim Al Hussein, Alia Issa and Anas Al Khalifa, along with Parfait Hakizimana of Burundi, Abbas Karimi of Afghanistan and Shahrad Nasajpour of Iran will march under the International Paralympic Flag during the opening ceremony, leading the Parade of Nations as the first athletes to enter Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.
In addition to the desire to compete for medals across four sports, the six RPT athletes hope to provide inspiration to others who have been forced to flee their native countries, as well as advocate for the inclusion of both refugees and differently-abled people in all levels of sport.
“These athletes, as individuals and as a Team are sending a message of hope and inspiration to refugees around the world,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said. “They are truly trailblazers in promoting refugee and disability inclusion, in elite sport and in life, and we hope their example will move us one step closer towards an inclusive and equal world for all.”
The team is highlighted by Para swimmer Abbas Karimi, who four years ago became the first refugee to win a world championship medal of any kind when he took silver in the S5 50m butterfly at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships.
Karimi was born without arms in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1997. When he was 13, he first attempted to swim in a 25-meter community pool using a life jacket. “I was so scared,” Karimi remembers of that first swim. “I asked the lifeguard, ‘Do you think I can learn how to swim?’ He said, ‘Of course you can. There are people in the world who don’t have arms and legs and who swim.’ So, I put on a life jacket and didn’t drown. That day gave me a lot of hope.”
He eventually was able to ditch the life jacket and gradually developed a swift dolphin kick stroke, winning national competitions in Afghanistan. Though he constantly worried about his safety in the war-torn nation.
“My tribe, the Hazara people, are often killed when they are caught by the Taliban. There were a lot of bombs exploding in Kabul. I wasn’t the type of kid to stay inside the house so I could have been killed at any time if I stayed,” Karimi said.
At 16 years old, he embarked on a harrowing journey through the Zagros mountains to Turkey, where he lived for four years as a refugee. He later relocated to the United States, where he now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, continuing to train as a high-level Paralymic athlete.
“I believe God took my arms by mistake, but he gave me a talent in my feet,” Karimi said.
Karimi will be joined in Tokyo by Alia Issa, the first female to represent the Refugee Team as a Paralympic athlete. Issa, who was born to Syrian refugees in Greece, competes in the club throw in Para track and field. She sustained physical and intellectual impairments resulting from the Smallpox virus as a four-year-old.
The Refugee Team also includes Para swimmer Al Hussein, taekwondo athlete Hakizimana, Para canoeist Al Khalifa and discus thrower Nasajpour.
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begin August 24 and can be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.