‘My Olympics journey should give hope to all young Afghan girls’

Nigara Shaheen was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan when she was just six months old.

Her family, based in Jalalabad, fled the war in Afghanistan, walking for two days and two nights in 1993 to cross the border into Pakistan.

Eighteen years later, Shaheen decided to study at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and set foot in the country for the first time since then.

On July 28 this year, Shaheen will make her Olympics debut at the women’s judo event, representing the Refugee Olympic Team at the delayed Tokyo Games.

Her dream of being an Olympian was nearly shattered earlier this month after a team official tested positive for coronavirus while the squad was training in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

“It was hard,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “At one point, we thought we might lose the chance to compete [at the Games] and be a voice to all the refugees. But we overcame it together as a family.”

While in Doha, Al Jazeera spoke to Shaheen about being an Olympian, her love for judo and the obstacles faced on the way to being where she is today.

Shaheen’s family fled Afghanistan when she was six months old [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: What was your reaction when you found out that you will be going to the Olympics?
Shaheen: I always dreamt of competing at the Olympics and I was very committed to achieving my dream but there were times that I thought I will never be able to achieve it, especially during my time in Russia [for a Master’s degree] while all the judo clubs were shut due to coronavirus.

But I remember the day when the Refugee Olympics Team was announced, it took me almost a day to actually digest the fact that I was selected.

Al Jazeera: What obstacles have you faced in your journey to where you are?
Shaheen: I’ve been harassed and bullied a lot. In Peshawar (northwest Pakistan where Shaheen and her family live as refugees) and Kabul, we were scared and worried for our security. I’ve been targeted and received God knows how many threats on social media. There are Facebook pages created in my name posting stuff about me.

In Russia, I felt I was not welcomed into the society. I travelled there thinking I will be supported to train in judo but didn’t get the support I was expecting.

It’s been hard. But all those things have made me stronger. It was rough but if it wasn’t for all those things, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Al Jazeera: How has the support at home been?
Shaheen: I’ve been really lucky to have the immense support of my family. I’ve been attacked so many times on the way to training with my family but grateful because my parents knew my passion and always motivated me and were beside me no matter what.

Al Jazeera: How was it growing up in Pakistan?
Shaheen: When you’re a refugee in another country and very young, you feel you’re not so much integrated into society. As a kid growing up in Pakistan, I had a lot of anxiety and life was rougher than other kids around me.

But sport really was a safe haven for me not just for my mental health but also for giving me the opportunity to integrate into society. Judo will forever be my love.

Al Jazeera: How did judo come about in your life?
Shaheen: I was into martial arts, wrestling, I really liked those. I wanted to join any martial arts club that I could. I started off with karate. The area we were living in had no other club so I had no choice. At an under-14 tournament in Islamabad, my coach asked if I wanted to play judo as there weren’t many female judo players. I agreed and competed in judo while wearing karate clothes.

As soon as I stepped onto that mat, I felt something. I felt I found my passion. And that’s when I left karate and took up judo.

Al Jazeera: It took 18 years for you to visit Afghanistan again. How did you feel on your first trip back?
Shaheen: It was emotional. In Peshawar, when I was in school, they would sing Pakistan’s national anthem every morning. I felt very welcome growing up in Peshawar but while I have deep respect for the country, deep down I felt a little disintegrated during the national anthem.

Going back to Afghanistan was difficult, a lot of things were new for me and it took me time to adapt.

Additionally, I was asked why I called myself Afghani since I grew up in Pakistan. I had to face that, too.

Shaheen hopes her presence at Tokyo 2020 will give hope to young Afghan girls dreaming of the Olympics [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: By being there at the Olympics, what message are you able to give young Afghan girls?
Shaheen: My presence itself should give hope to all young Afghan girls that are dreaming of the Olympics. I have faced all the obstacles they are facing. But If I can do it, so can they. It is hard but nothing is out of the human capacity.

Find what you’re really passionate about and follow it no matter what.

Al Jazeera: So what happens after the Olympics are over?
Shaheen: I haven’t really thought about it yet. I will always be connected with sports. It has given me so much. I love judo and throughout the struggles of my life, the only safe haven and mental calmness for me was sports. I want to give back to the sports community. I will find my way.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.



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