Since Sunday, more than 600 fighters from around 100 countries have been fighting for a total of 15 world championship titles at the Judo World Championships in Doha. In addition to the fights in the individual competition, the national teams also compete against each other in the team discipline.
The international sports world is also experiencing a premiere of a special kind: For the first time in history, a complete mixed team of refugee athletes is competing in a direct duel with other national teams at a world championship.
The International Refugee Team (IRF) consists of three athletes each. Nigara Shaheen is also part of the IRF. For the 29-year-old, participation in the 2023 Judo World Championships is another milestone in her sporting career.
Escape from Taliban
Almost two years after taking part in the Olympics in Tokyo, the Afghan is now back on a major world sport stage in Doha. Their history is largely shaped by flight and migration.
She spent the first 18 years of her life with her family as a refugee in Pakistan, where she began practicing judo at the age of 11. After an interim return to Afghanistan, she once again had to flee from the Taliban. She currently lives and trains in Canada.
“Unfortunately, as a woman, taking part in the World Cup with my home country is impossible for me under the Taliban’s misogynist rule,” Shaheen told DW. “The nomination of a World Cup mixed team for refugees is a golden opportunity for refugee top athletes and enhances them.”
Team as “representative of all refugees”
As a self-confessed feminist, she is happy to be part of a three-male and three-male team at the World Cup. “The cohesion within our mixed team is exemplary. Our team represents virtually all the refugees in the world,” emphasizes the political scientist, who is now pursuing an academic qualification in international development in her adopted country of Canada.
For Nigara Shaheen (l.), judo is much more than “just” the fight
Iranian Mahboubeh Barbari and Muna Dahuok from Syria are fighting in Shaheen’s team. Referring to the countries of origin of her two colleagues in the mixed team, Shaheen emphasizes: “The three of us come from countries where women are systematically discriminated against by the state and fight for their basic rights. That’s why our appearance on the IRF also reflects the resistance of women in our home countries contrary.”
Resilience in Life Through Judo
The 32-year-old has lived in Germany since fleeing her homeland in 2018. In an interview with DW, she says: “The formation of the IRF mixed team conveys the message of solidarity in the world with all refugees.”
Iranian Mahboubeh Barbari is proud to be part of the refugee team
Before fleeing Iran, Barbari was a member of the national team there. The heavyweight athlete admits: “Of course, all top athletes in a country prefer to participate in the formation of their own national team and under their own national flag. But this is sometimes not possible for incomprehensible reasons.”
Therefore, the establishment of a refugee team is a “wonderful gesture in the spirit of Olympic values to bring the world together,” she continues.
2024 Olympics in focus
By participating in the Judo World Championships, she also has the opportunity to fulfill her lifelong dream and to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, Barbari proudly emphasizes.
Participation in the Olympics with his team is also firmly in the sights of IRF head coach Vahid Sarlak. He sees “realistic chances” for his protégés to successfully qualify for the Olympics.
In addition to Barbari and Shaheen, Muna Dahuok, who comes from Syria and lives in the Netherlands, also has good prospects of getting a ticket to Paris in her weight class, Sarlak claims to DW.
The mixed team of refugees is completed by the Iranian athlete Kavan Majidi, who lives in Scotland, and those who have been admitted to Germany Arab Sibghatullah from Afghanistan and Adnan Khankan from Syria. Outside of the mixed team, Mohammad Rashnozadeh should also take part in the World Cup in Qatar. But the Iranian, who was recognized as a refugee in the Netherlands, was refused entry by the Qatari authorities because of missing documents.
Flight and migration as a reality of life
The life of Vahid Sarlak is also marked by an escape story. The IRF head coach was once a fighter himself as part of the Iranian national judo team. 14 years ago, the 42-year-old left Germany after defying the strict guidelines of his government and fighting an “illegal” tournament against an Israeli.
Sarlak, who is also active as Bundesliga trainer of the 1. JC Mönchengladbach and NRW state trainer, finds words of praise for the cooperation between the International Judo Federation (IJF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Both associations are largely responsible for the foundation of the judo refugee team.
“Migration and flight is a reality of life around the world. Professional athletes are no exception,” he emphasized in an interview with DW. It is all the more gratifying that the IJF and the IOC have now done justice to this reality and are intensively promoting refugee athletes, adds Sarlak.
But is it conceivable that at some point refugee teams will take part in other sports together with other national teams at world championships? “Why not,” replies Vahid Sarlak, emphasizing: “We are pioneers in implementing this idea. I don’t think it would be unreasonable for other sports to imitate it.”
After the bye in the first round of the Judo World Championships, the International Refugee Team will meet the national team of Uzbekistan in round 2 next Sunday. It could be the beginning of a new sporting chapter at World Championships.