Meet the World’s Most Courageous Sport Team

By Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The Paralympic symbol installed for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Odaiba Marine Park, Tokyo, 20 August, 2021 © UNHCR/Lucy King

oday, as we watch the first official Refugee Paralympic Team participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, it’s not lost on me or my organization, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that these Games would not even exist were it not for one refugee: Ludwig Guttman.

In 1939, neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttman fled his home in Nazi Germany to the United Kingdom. There, he pioneered the use of sport in the rehabilitation of his patients, many of whom had spinal cord injuries. Guttman went on to establish the Stoke Mandeville Games, the precursor to the Paralympic Games — now the world’s third largest sporting event.

Alia Issa is a Paralympic athlete and a Syrian refugee living in Greece. © Getty images / Milos Bicanski

Considered the father of the Paralympic movement, I believe Guttmann would be proud to see that sport has increasingly become a catalyst to transform and rebuild people’s lives. As a refugee himself, he would be elated to see sport being used worldwide as a powerful tool in the protection and empowerment of displaced people who, like him, were forced to flee their homes to preserve the safety and future of their families. Guttmann’s hope was that every person with a disability could one day be a “taxpayer,” meaning gainfully employed and fully included as equal contributors to society. UNHCR wants the same for all refugees and displaced people everywhere.

The Refugee Paralympic Team is a bright light of representation and triumph over adversity and a reminder that no dream is out of reach.

Over the next two weeks, a group of six refugees will compete at the Paralympic Games as members of the IPC’s Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT). When I became the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, before the Rio 2016 Games, I could only have hoped that a partnership with the IPC would yield such glorious opportunities for refugees with disabilities to participate on the international sporting stage. We watch now as they become beacons of hope, inspiration and inclusion, not only for people with disabilities and those displaced, but for all of humanity.

Globally, it is estimated that 1.2 billion individuals live with a disability. Of the more than 82 million people now displaced worldwide, estimates indicate that 12 million live with some form of disability, making them some of the most marginalized people in the world. This also places them among the most courageous and brave people in the world, having faced unthinkable obstacles, displacement, discrimination, stigma and abuse. Imagine the courage it takes to fight against all these odds. The Refugee Paralympic Team is a bright light of representation and triumph over adversity, and a reminder to them — and to all of us — that no dream is out of reach.

We at UNHCR are proud to support these athletes as they prove to the world the power of sport to change, rebuild and sustain lives.

Abbas Karimi fled Afghanistan and is now a swimmer for the Refugee Paralympic Team. © Getty Images / Michael Reaves

We applaud swimmer Abbas Karimi, who fled conflict in Afghanistan. He recently became a high profile supporter for UNHCR, meaning he will work with us to raise awareness and support for forcibly displaced people. Parfait Hakizimana is the only person on the team who travelled to Tokyo from home in a refugee camp. Parfait lives in Rwanda and dreams of returning to Burundi, the country he was forced to flee after armed men shot him in the arm. He wants to return so he can share his passion for taekwondo. Ibrahim Al Hussein is a Syrian refugee swimmer who lost his leg while assisting a friend caught in crossfire in Syria, who then went on to compete at Rio 2016. Anas Al Khalifa is a Syria-born canoeist who has not seen his parents in 10 years and who wants to share his message of hope with other displaced people. Alia Issa, the youngest and only female team member, lives as a refugee in Greece and balances high school studies with training and competing in club throwing. And finally, Shahrad Nasajpour competed in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and after Tokyo plans to start studying for his MBA.

Each of these six para-athletes has overcome enormous adversity, lived through conflict, trauma, discrimination, exile and even more recently the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, to achieve their dreams. We at UNHCR are proud to support them and I am certain that Guttman would also be proud, as they prove to the world the power of sport to change, rebuild and sustain lives.

If you are searching for a team to support this Paralympic Games, look no further. Cheer on these extraordinary athletes, be inspired by their achievements, remember all they represent, and support their dreams to achieve an inclusive and equal world for all.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

The official account of UNHCR. Follow us as we provide vital aid and protection to the forcibly displaced around the world.