All for one, one for all: How sport becomes lifeline of refugee athletes

Refugee Olympic Team chef de mission Masomah speaks about how sport gives them an opportunity to forget about strife, stay healthy and integrate with the society.
Cyclist Masomah Ali Zada along with refugee athletes, at the Terrains d’Avenir programme in Paris.
Cyclist Masomah Ali Zada along with refugee athletes, at the Terrains d’Avenir programme in Paris.Photo | IOC

They don't represent a country because they don’t have one right now. They are of different religions, ethnicities and colours. They are displaced individuals trying to get a grip on their lives, festered by violence, pain and death. Uprooted from their place of birth, they are left without an identity—the very fabric that binds all humans. Forced to settle on alien land, marginalised and scoured at, they look for something to live with a semblance of normalcy.

In sport, they have found just that.

The International Olympic Committee's Refugee Olympic Team has been a symbol of resilience and hope. Thirty-six faces representing more than 120 million displaced people across the world.

The IOC fielded a refugee team for the first time at the Rio Olympics (10 athletes) and followed it up at the Tokyo Games (29 athletes).

For a refugee, pursuing sport is often the last thing on their mind.

Yet between enduring hardships, endless paperwork and unending waits, these athletes have found time to play and forget their strife and loneliness for a while.

No one has seen this turmoil as up close as Masomah Ali Zada.

Born in Afghanistan, she was forced to spend her childhood in Iran. There is a story of neglect behind her new name, too. Masomah narrates how it was not the name she was given when she was born in Afghanistan.

"I was born during a period of war, and I lived with my uncles. Every year, a girl child was being born in the family. So they called me by a name that meant "this girl child is enough."

So when she was forced to live in Iran, "there, they said it was not a good name and changed it to Masomah."

After she returned to Afghanistan, where she started pursuing her passion—cycling—she was harassed and threatened by the Taliban government.

Yet she never forgot to dream. She trained even while she was getting teased and stoned in Afghanistan. She never gave up after she sought asylum in Lille (France).

She represented the Refugee Team at the Tokyo Olympics and this time she is the chef de mission.

Masomah, during a virtual interaction with this daily from Paris, explains the challenges a refugee faces in a new host country.

"All refugees face difficulties. It can be different from person to person and it also depends on the host country. In general, most of the difficulties and challenges are due to a lot of paperwork. When we arrive in a new country, we have to wait for papers and it's a long time. During this period, we cannot do anything. We cannot learn the language. We don't have access to education so we wait," she said.

Sometimes these long waits can be torturous. At the same time, it offers an opportunity too. Like sport.

"It's the only possibility that helps refugees to just pass the time and wait. Most refugees in this period try to play a sport, also to remain healthy, mentally and physically. Also, for people who like to study, finding a university that accepts refugees can be tedious. So is finding work."

At the same time, they have to think about their families back home. "We have our families who are still in our country and we miss them and would like to help them," she said.

"Amid all these challenges, we arrive in a new country where there is no one to help. For myself, there was a French community that helped."

Afghan-born cyclist Masomah Ali Zada
Afghan-born cyclist Masomah Ali Zada

As the chef de mission, there are responsibilities too. "It is a big responsibility. At the same time, it's an honour. It will be an occasion for me to share my experience with them, to support them and to lead them."

Masomah feels that she likes to help people, through sharing her experience and journey. "I would like to encourage the (refugee) community and also tell the host community to allow them to show their talent, to integrate them with your country and help them to progress in their host countries," she said.

"They have a lot of talent. They just need a chance. I know that it's really difficult to be a refugee, but still, we have to keep going. We have a right to leave and dream and thanks to the Olympic team that allows refugees to be part of international competition like the Olympic Games. For the refugees, they have to try to work hard and use all the opportunities that they have in their host countries and do their best to achieve their dreams. They show resilience, they work hard and they try to integrate with the society and they have a dream; and they have the right to participate in the Olympic Games."

Masomah also speaks about meeting the team. The beauty is that the players don't speak one language or follow one religion. They are from strife-torn regions finding semblance in their lives through sport. Her words are John Lennonesque: 'there is no country or religion too...'

"I am so lucky to be chef de mission of a team that's from a different culture, speaks different languages," she said.

"I suffered a lot of discrimination because of my nation and my ethnicity. I saw them on TV and know that we are from different countries. The Olympic Games is the moment that they will realise their dream."

According to the IOC, the 36 athletes are hosted by 15 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and will be competing across 12 sports.

Masomah also speaks about a project she saw up close on Wednesday—the Terrains d’Avenir programme in Paris.

"Last night I played handball with the refugee women. And there was this woman from Sri Lanka. She was 66 years old but healthy and always laughing. She played with us and can't speak French. But still, we could play with each other, share our experiences and for that one hour, we forgot all our problems as refugees. They are alone in their host country and their families in their own country. We feel lonely. Through sport, we can try and communicate with others. At the same time, playing sport helps us mentally, as we know we are not alone in this situation. Last night's (Tuesday) event was really interesting for me. I saw the refugee women that were from different countries and it was the moment that they played with each other and enjoyed themselves."

While speaking about Afghanistan, she hoped things would change for women.

"The situation in Afghanistan is not fair for women. We wish that this will change. It's a wish and a dream for all of us, and especially for women of Afghanistan."

Her words might have all been about difficulties and unrealised dreams but one thing always shines through: sport's power to heal!

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