Abbas Karimi fled Afghanistan at age 16, now representing Tokyo 2020 refugee Paralympic team


Karimi was born without arms, diagnosed with a congenital limb deficiency.

Despite their initial concerns, Karimi said his family decided to raise him like the rest of his siblings, pouring as much love and support as possible to their child.

“It was what he expected from my whole family, and that’s what they did. They raised me and I was like a normal child,” Karimi added.

But Karimi’s parents were unable to protect him from the relentless abuse he suffered from children at school. As a result, he started kickboxing at the age of 12, in order to protect himself from bullies.

“People judged me every time I went out,” he said. “Children called me ‘armless’, ‘cripple’ […] that made me angry, “he said.” That’s why I wanted to learn martial arts […] I wanted to defend myself. “

Find refuge in the water

Despite learning martial arts, Karimi found solace in a whole different world – water.

From the age of about eight, Karimi said he skipped school and went out with his friends to swim in the local river.

When Karimi was 13, he said his brother had built a 25-meter swimming pool for the local community, and he began to realize the power he had in his lower body.

“As a child I started going to school and somehow my family and I found out, ‘OK, I don’t have arms, but I have my feet. ‘”, did he declare.

“I think that’s how it started my interest. I feel good in the water, but I never had to believe in myself that as a child I could learn to swim without arms. , until my brother […] he built a swimming pool.

“I put on a life jacket and there was a lifeguard there, and I asked him […] “Can I learn to swim? He said: ‘Yes, there are swimmers without arms and legs that they have learned to swim. You know, you just don’t have any weapons. Of course you can. ‘”

Ultimately, Karimi said it was the water that made him “feel free”.

“It’s my freedom and I [feel] reborn every time I jump into the water. “

Karimi says he left Afghanistan because there was

Flee afghanistan

But Karimi’s life changed when he was 16.

Growing up in Afghanistan – a war-stricken country involving foreign forces – he was desperate for a way out.

He fled the country and flew to Iran, then a week later and says he paid smugglers to undertake a three-day trek in the Zagros Mountains, taking him to Turkey.

He said he was full of anxiety: “I didn’t know where are we going to end up? […] Are we going to arrive in Turkey? We didn’t know because it wasn’t just me, there were a lot of people.

“It was a horrible and scary trip. It was a lot of fear,” he said. “I kept praying that I wouldn’t be captured and I’m out of trouble.

“But somehow we got to Turkey. Every time I go back to this time that I lived through, it’s very scary.

“But I dared to do it, and I did.”

Karimi’s trip from Afghanistan was not born of free will but rather of necessity.

“There are a lot of dangerous places I used to live,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of there […] so no one can tell me what to do. I just wanted to be independent, like everyone else wants. “

Karimi spent four years in Turkey and lived in four different refugee camps. In the second camp, which accommodated people with disabilities, he swam twice a day for training – going to the pool and back by bus.

“I knew swimming was going to be a big personality for me, and that’s what happened,” he said.

“I wanted to be something big, to be better than anyone. But the point is, you don’t have to be better than anyone. You just have to be you and that’s it.”

Relocating to the United States

While Karimi was in Turkey, he won 15 medals, including two Turkish national championships, but said he could not compete on an international stage because he did not have valid documents.

However, his luck changed in September 2015, when former wrestling coach Mike Ives saw a video on Facebook of Karimi swimming and calling on the Afghan government to help him compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Ives, who was supporting refugee athletes after retirement, contacted Karimi and liaised with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help Karimi relocate to Portland, Oregon in 2016.

“It’s like my American father, another father figure to me. I thought it was not possible to go to the United States like that. But he did,” Karimi told the International Committee. Paralympic. “Going to the United States gave me a second chance in life to pursue my dreams.”
Karimi hopes to win a Paralympic medal at this year's Games in Tokyo, promising he

Tokyo 2020 qualification

Since then, Karimi has seen success after success – including silver at the Para Swimming World Championships in Mexico in 2017 – and announced his qualification for his first Games at Tokyo 2020 this summer, where he will represent the Refugee Paralympic team.

“I knew I would be selected before they announced it because I did everything I had to do,” he told CNN. “But of course it was up to them to select the best refugee Paralympic athletes to go […] in Tokyo. “

“It was like after nine years, all that struggles, every part I invested, every risk I took, it was all worth it, and now it’s real.”

Karimi said he was passionate about getting on the podium and that he “would do the job successfully”.

“I’m very, very excited, very nervous. But I stay on the track and I keep focusing on myself and getting better every day,” he said.

“Before I retire I have to win this Paralympic medal, and that’s how I want to leave my legacy. It will probably happen this year, or the next three years, but it will happen, and I promise you it. . “

“It made my father proud”

Karimi said he owed much of his success to Ives and his Afghan coach Qasim Hamidi.

“He [Hamidi] saw me and noticed that I can swim a little […] then he taught me some techniques and he said, ‘I’m going to make you a great hero. I’m going to make you a great champion, “he said.” Then I started to trust myself.

“I continued to swim and swim. This is how it gave me the conviction that it doesn’t matter if I have a loss of ease. […] I am so young and I have determination. I know I have this motivation […] and, one day, I can become a champion. “

Karimi also paid tribute to his late father and said that upon hearing the news of his death in 2019, he felt like he was “falling apart”.

“I felt like I was in the sky and I was falling to earth,” he added. “Even my father, he didn’t know that I would be a swimmer and that I would be champion one day.

“I created all of these things because it made sense to me, and it made my dad proud.”

Karimi (right) led the Refugee Paralympic Team with fellow flag-bearer Alia Issa (center left) in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Competing on the world stage

The para-swimmer is aware of the increased visibility he has with his new platform. Now that he’s competing on the world stage, Karimi has said he wants to represent people with disabilities, as well as refugees.

“I know every disabled person in this world […] it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a part of your leg or your arm, but you have your brain, your heart, and you got to get up and fight for it. And I’m one of them, ”he said.

“I’ll do my best to prove to myself that it’s okay I don’t have arms […] I am equal to an ordinary person who has arms and legs. “

As part of World Refugee Day on June 20, Karimi was interviewed by famous novelist and fellow Afghan refugee Khaled Hosseini, an experience he called “a great honor”.

“We have a good friendship between us. I’m very proud of him, and I hope he is proud of me. And we are trying to do good things in this world,” he said.

“It means no matter what we’ve been through, how many struggles we’ve been through […] as displaced people, but we are strong and we want to do good things in this world and we want to make the world a better place. “

“I’m always looking for hope”

After embarking on a long and eventful journey to Tokyo, Karimi’s faith remained her one constant.

“My father was a very religious person and he taught me everything about my religion and I have a bond, a special bond between me and my God,” he said.

“I made a lot of sacrifices, with every step […] God, Allah, He was with me, and I felt it.

“My religion has taught me to respect every person and everything in this world. I don’t judge the universe. I always seek hope every moment of my life.

“When God takes something from you, He gives you something else instead, and that’s what I believe.”

Karimi has faced countless hardships throughout his life, but his boundless sense of optimism and gratitude seems to exceed any grief he may feel.

“All I’ve done in the past nine years is because I don’t want to live like regret[ful] nobody the rest of my life. I know I could be a lot of things and I have a lot of skills, but swimming was the only thing that made me happy, “he said.

“No matter what we’re going through, no matter how hard and hard life is […] I’ve learned that life is good and it’s worth taking all the risks to achieve your goals and dreams and be the person you are. “

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