They are not different, really not. They train every day to perform and improve. Since the beginning of the week, they have been pacing the corridors of the world championships like hundreds of other athletes and coaches and yet their history, their stories, should we say, are special. Life has not always been kind to them but today they are part of the great judo family and it is within this family that they have begun a new phase of life which inspires respect and gives hope to millions of refugees around the world.
Muna, Vahid and Nigara

Muna Dahouk, Nigara Shaheen, accompanied by their coach, Vahid Sarlak, were in the warm-up room this morning and we met them to talk about their experience of this World Judo Championships - Doha 2023.

Muna and Nigara, all smiles, explain, "Being here is a bit special for us because ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games, all the refugee athletes who were members of the IOC Refugee Team gathered here to prepare for the Games. We spent time in Qatar and coming back here is quite emotional because it brings back a lot of beautiful memories. For more than a week, we have had flashbacks. We feel a bit at home."

Feeling at home has a special flavour when you have had to flee yours and your country to start a new life in a totally different environment and culture. "We have all taken part in the individual competition here in Doha but what we are really looking forward to is the mixed team tournament. It reminds us that in life it is important to be surrounded and united. We cannot do anything alone. When we fight as a team we find this feeling of connectedness and togetherness," explains Nigara, before adding, "The world championships is my favourite competition. If I have to miss a grand slam, I could cope with it but I would not want for anything in the world to miss the worlds."

Muna Dahouk during the grand prix in Portugal earlier this year

Muna underlines that, "We are like a family with big brothers and sisters and new 'kids' that we accompany so that they can integrate quickly." This integration is essential, as Vahid points out, "It is our responsibility to integrate ourselves into the big judo family. We must accept how it works and fit into the mold, while being proud of our specificities and our history. I completely understand what my athletes have been through, as I am a refugee myself.

In 2009 I competed at the World Judo Championships in Rotterdam and in 2010 I competed against an Israeli athlete, which was totally logical for me. We are athletes and we need to face whoever is in front of us. Unfortunately, after that I couldn't come back home and I stayed in Germany. For more than 13 years, I have been a refugee."

Nigara Shaheen

Vahid's story is the story of everyone on the team. The pitfalls of life stood before them but they managed to find the path of hope. "We are not here to compare ourselves with others but to find a better version of ourselves. Everyone has had their journey and everyone must believe that there is always hope. Really, I want to say to everyone not to compare themselves to others but to compare themselves to themselves, so that tomorrow will be better than today," says Nigara.

High-level judo remains a competition, by definition, you still have to compare yourself to your opponents, but is that really the important thing? "It's not always easy because the level of competition is very high but I want to say that despite the defeats there is also a magnificent victory. By showing that we can be here, we give hope. You have to try and try again and again; that's the only way you can progress in life. Finally, the individual defeat of the moment is only ever part of the great victory we have over life,” emphasises Muna.

Nigara and Muna

Beyond the performance therefore, there is a deep humanist message that goes beyond the sporting framework, "A few days ago, President Vizer gave us a prize at the IJF gala. It was a strong symbol. I could never thank Mr Vizer and the entire IJF team enough, accompanying us for years and helping us to move forward. Before the world championship, we were lucky enough to be received at the office of the president in Budapest ( It was a very moving moment. Mr Vizer also underlined it during the gala, he too was a refugee," adds Vahid.

When sport and judo in particular bring hope to the hearts of those who have lost everything, we can say without hesitation that the objective of Jigoro Kano, mutual aid and mutual prosperity (jita kyoei) is achieved. "Life has not always been kind to us, but we have a smile, because judo has given us everything and we will give back everything we can,” conclude Muna, Nigara and Vahid.

See also