Since last Sunday, more than 600 fighters from around 100 countries have been competing for a total of 15 titles at the Judo World Championships in Doha, Qatar. In addition to fights in individual competition, the national squads are competing against each other in the team discipline.
The event features a premier in the world of sports as, for the first time in history, a complete mixed team of refugee athletes are competing with other national teams as The International Refugee Team (IRF).
Fleeing the Taliban
Nigara Shaheen is part of the IRF and, for the 29-year-old, participation in the 2023 World Judo Championships is another milestone in her sporting career. Almost two years after her participation in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Afghan now stands on one of world sport’s big stages for the second time. Her story is largely shaped by flight and migration.
She spent the first 18 years of her life living with her family as a refugee in Pakistan, where she began practicing judo at the age of 11. After a temporary return to Afghanistan, she had to flee from the Taliban again. She currently lives and trains in Canada.
"Participating in the World Championships with my home country is unfortunately impossible for me as a woman under the misogynistic rule of the Taliban," Shaheen told DW. "The nomination of a mixed team for refugees for the World Championships is a golden opportunity for top refugee athletes."
Team 'representative of all refugees'
As an avowed feminist, she says she is happy to be competing at the World Championships as part of a team with equal numbers of female and male athletes – three each.
"The cohesion within our mixed team is exemplary. Our team virtually represents all refugees in the world," stressed the political science graduate, who is now pursuing further academic qualifications in Canada.
Iranian Mahboubeh Barbari and Muna Dahuok of Syria are also on Shaheen's team. Referring to the countries of origin of her two fellow competitors in the mixed team, Shaheen stressed: "We three come from countries where women are systematically discriminated against by the state and we fight for their basic rights. Therefore, our appearance in the IRF also reflects the resistance of women in our home countries."
Resilience through judo
For Shaheen judo is much more than a mere sport.
"Judo has not only made me an athlete, but has also given me resilience in overcoming my personal life problems," she said.
Mahboubeh Barbari is set to become the first Iranian female judoka to compete in a World Judo Championship in IRF kit and without the headgear prescribed by the Islamist Republic of Iran
"From the constitution of the IRF mixed team comes the message of the world's solidarity with all refugees," the 32-year-old told DW. Barbari was a member of the national team in Iran before fleeing to Germany in 2018.
"Of course, all top athletes of a country prefer to compete for their own national team and under their own national flag. But this is sometimes not possible for incomprehensible reasons," said the judoka who competes in the heavyweight division.
Therefore, the creation of a refugee team is a "wonderful gesture in the spirit of the Olympic values to bring the world together," she added.
Focus on the 2024 Olympics
Participating in the Judo World Championships also gives Barbari the opportunity to fulfil her lifelong dream and qualify for the 2024 Olympics.
IRF head coach Vahid Sarlak also has his sights firmly set on Olympic participation with his team. He believes there are "realistic chances" of qualifying for the summer spectacle in Paris.
Besides Barbari and Shaheen, Muna Dahuok, hailing from Syria and now living in the Netherlands, also has good chances of getting a ticket to the Olympics in her weight class, Sarlak told DW.
The mixed team of refugees is completed by the Iranian athlete Kavan Majidi, who lives in Scotland, as well as Arab Sibghatullah from Afghanistan and Adnan Khankan from Syria, who have been residing in Germany. Outside the mixed team, Mohammad Rashnozadeh was also supposed to take part in the World Championships in Qatar. But the Iranian, who is recognised as a refugee in the Netherlands, was denied entry by the Qatari authorities because he lacked the necessary documents.
Flight and migration a reality of life
Vahid Sarlak's life is also marked by a story of flight. The IRF head coach was once part of the Iranian national judo team as a fighter himself. Fourteen years ago, the now 42-year-old fled to Germany after defying the strict guidelines of his state leadership andfighting "without permission" against an Israeli at a tournament.
Sarlak, who remains active coaching 1. JC Mönchengladbach and acting as the state coach in the western German state of North Rhine-Westfalia, has words of praise for the cooperation of the International Judo Federation (IJF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The two organizations were largely responsible for the establishment of the Judo Refugee Team.
"Migration and flight is a reality of life worldwide. Professional athletes are not exempt from this," Sarlak told DW, while also praising the IFJ and the IOC for their support of refugee athletes.
So could refugee teams in other sports compete against other national teams in the future?
"Why not?" replied Sarlak. "We are pioneers in implementing this idea. I don't think imitation by other sports is out of the question."
After the bye in the first round of the Judo World Championships, the International Refugee Team are to meet the national team of Uzbekistan in Round 2 on Sunday. It could be the beginning of a new chapter in world sports.
Update, March 12, 2023: Mahboubeh Barbari told DW on Thursday that she was unable to make the trip to Qatar due to not having the required travel documents.
Source: Deutsche Welle