There is Muna Dahouk, Arab Sibghatullah, Adnan Khankan, Nigara Shaheen, Mohammad Rashnonezhad. Maybe you don't know their names and yet they deserve to be talked about more than many. They come from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan and all live today far from home and even further from their loved ones. Some have taken up residence in the Netherlands, others in Germany, Scotland or Canada. They are refugees and are members of the IJF Refugee Team. They are present this weekend at Grand Prix Portugal 2024. We met them and we came away from this talk with hearts full of hope.
Nigara Shaheen and Vahid Sarlak

As high level athletes, they participate in World Judo Tour events, fully supported by the International Judo Federation, which for many years has decided, under the leadership of President Marius Vizer, to give them the chance that they often do not get. To supervise them, there is Vahid Sarlak, the coach and mentor of the group. There is also Jorn Becker, the doctor who takes care of their bodies and their minds as well.

As the second day of competition gets under way, things are not simple from a sporting point of view. The competition is tough and playing at the highest level, with everything that preparing a world athlete requires, is complex. The refugee athletes give everything they have, without restraint, as coach Vahid explains, "I can guarantee you that none of my judoka has their foot on the brake. They give everything on the tatami and I am very proud of them. Just their presence is a victory. Niagara today did not win, but I have never seen her compete like she did. We must not forget that all my athletes have had and still have very difficult lives."

Vahid Sarlak, Coach

Muna and Nigara explain, "When we had to flee our countries, we left everything behind. Everything remained behind us, our property and our families, our lives. In our host countries, we have to rebuild everything. This is long and it's difficult. We will always be missing something but fortunately we have found a new family in judo."

This notion of judo family recurs throughout the discussion, like a leitmotif intimately linked to the present life of our judoka. "Today, often, our only family is the one we build for ourselves in judo. Whether within the dojo in which we practise, within our refugee team, or on the international circuit, our family is there. They support us day to day,” explains Arab Sibghatullah, before adding about Nigara, “You know that in Canada, where she lives now, she has to travel two hours back and forth to train. She's been there alone for months. This is hard!"

Jorn Becker and Muna Dahouk

Yet Nigara found a sister, "Muna became my new sister. We haven't known each other since childhood but today our bonds are just as strong. In adversity and through what we experience in judo, we have become closer. If I have a problem, I know that I can and will always count on her. Judo gave me a sister. The IJF allowed me to have a family."

Jorn Becker doesn't say anything else, "I'm a doctor and I'm not a refugee but I feel so many beautiful things within this team, which I am part of. At the beginning, we had individuals who we tried to bring together. Now we have a close-knit group that helps each other. That's what judo is. We have a life during tournaments but also outside."

"I dream of the day when I will be able to return there and rebuild it" - Muna Dahouk

"In fact, refugee athletes, when they are in judo, feel at home. I have experienced it myself, when I was a refugee, I know what it is like. Today I have built a new life in Germany and I am very happy about it but I can also say that the greatest opportunity of my life was to one day push the door of a dojo. With the unconditional support of the IJF, we are building a beautiful house together, we are all fighting together for this. I want to say that I admire President Vizer. He understands us, he supports us, he is there for us at all times, as is the case with the entire team of the international federation," explains Vahid.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, what the refugee team is fighting for is freedom. Freedom of choice, freedom of thought and freedom to act in a world that everyone wants in peace. In the dark times that humanity is going through, fortunately for Muna, Arab, Adnan, Nigara, Mohammed, Vahid and Jorn and for all those they represent, there is judo to give hope. Without the values that sport conveys, they would not be here talking to us. So yes, they want results, yes they want to win because above all they are competitors but haven't they already gained everything by arriving here?

Muna concludes by showing us images of her first dojo in Syria. It is now destroyed but, "I dream of the day when I will be able to return there and rebuild it. It is here that I started practising judo with my father. This is where I learned that this sport could bring to me and to the world everything."

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