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Afghanistan: Wheelchair basketball players achieve the impossible dream

19-05-2014 Feature

The players who make up the national wheelchair basketball team are from different parts of Afghanistan, but they speak with one voice when they say how much it means to them to be ambassadors for the disabled in their first-ever tournament abroad.


Gymnasium in ICRC physical rehabilitation centre, Kabul. Afghan national para-olympic basketball team training for the tournament in Italy. © ICRC / J. Barry
 

According to Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC's physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan, wheelchair basketball has been life-changing for the players. "Besides the joy and fun of playing – something they were deprived of for years – sport has given them self-confidence and self-esteem," he explains. "We should keep in mind that for a disabled person in Afghanistan sport is mostly about watching others play, usually on TV."

Playing basketball has given the players confidence to take on new challenges.

Playing basketball regularly has also inspired some of the players to learn additional skills.

"A few of them have started English lessons," Alberto remarks. "For years we advised them to do this. Sport performed the miracle, knocking down barriers."

"Others, like Saber, who was illiterate, have learned to read and write," Alberto continues. "They have taken out loans to start their own businesses. Playing basketball has given the players confidence to take on new challenges."

 

Travelling to Italy for first international match

Trainer Jess Markt  (left) and players discuss technique. 

Gymnasium in ICRC physical rehabilitation centre, Kabul.
Trainer Jess Markt (left) and players discuss technique.
© ICRC / Jessica Barry

It was the combined effects of dedicated ICRC staff, affordable, appropriately-adapted wheelchairs produced by Motivation, a British charity, and the inspiration of a professional basketball trainer, that has made the programme the success it is today. The players, who are all patients or staff at ICRC physical rehabilitation centres, come from all corners of Afghanistan. They started playing together in 2010. A year ago a national team was formed under the auspices of the Afghan para-olympic committee, supported by the ICRC. The team will play its first international match, in Italy, between 20 and 30 May.

"When I announced the invitation to play in Italy the team was overjoyed," remembers Alberto. "The host team is Briante84, of Cantù, near Milan, the winner of the 2012-13 Italian League."

For people who watched the team in recent days training with their coach, Jess Markt, the tension and excitement were almost palpable. For Farhad, Shapoor, Nasrullah and Saber, four of the 15 players going to Italy, the upcoming challenge is beyond their wildest dreams.

 

Farhad Mohammadi (21) from Herat: afflicted with polio

When you have a disability it is easy to think that you can’t do anything. (...) Becoming sportsmen has helped all of us to have faith in ourselves.

Until the age of seven I could only crawl on my hands and knees. Then a friend told my family about the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation centre in Herat and my parents took me there. Today, after years of treatment, I can walk.

Farhad Mohammadi from Herat 

Farhad Mohammadi from Herat
© ICRC / Jessica Barry

I believe that sport is good for everyone’s health and morale. And basketball has become an important part of my life since I started playing four years ago. My family encourages me, and my mother and brother are especially proud of what I am doing.

I know the Italian players will be hard to beat because they have been playing for years. Nevertheless our team is talented, too, and we want to show the world that having a disability does not stop one from doing things.

I am looking forward to playing against these international players, and to sitting with them afterwards and exchanging ideas. After we get back to Afghanistan I hope we can be an example to other disabled people. When you have a disability it is easy to think that you can’t do anything. Playing basketball has shown me that that is not true. Becoming sportsmen has helped all of us to have faith in ourselves.

I am now a benchworker at the Herat physical rehabilitation centre and earn my own living. If the centres did not exist, many people like me would simply be begging on the streets.

 

Shapoor Sorkhabi (21) from Maimana: has difficulty walking since childhood owing to severe burns

Shapoor Sorkhabi from Maimana 

Shapoor Sorkhabi from Maimana
© ICRC / Jessica Barry

My mother tried to discourage my love of basketball, saying I should put my studies first. But I persisted and started playing four years ago at the physical rehabilitation centre in Maimana, where I was receiving treatment.

I played in a wheelchair basketball tournament at the centre here in Kabul in 2012 and was made man of the match. After that my mother became proud of me. I was proud of myself, too.

It is not only at basketball that I have triumphed. After the tournament I stayed on in Kabul and underwent operations to my legs that have given me back some mobility.

It's true that I love basketball, but I love football more. Ronaldo is my hero. I even wore "his" number, number seven, when I first joined the national basketball team.

I’m excited about going to Italy. I want to meet other sportsmen and go sightseeing. I would like to go to the beach, too.


Nasrullah Nastratyar (19) from Mazar: afflicted with polio

I have been playing basketball for the past three years at the ICRC's physical rehabilitation centre in Mazar. While I am playing I feel like a perfect man, and playing helps me overcome the feeling I sometimes have that I cannot do anything.

 

Nasrullah Nastratyar from Mazar
© ICRC / Jessica Barry

While I am playing I feel like a perfect man, and playing helps me overcome the feeling I sometimes have that I cannot do anything.

All the others in the place where I live are backing me, and will be following the team while we are abroad. They give me a lot of encouragement and support.

This will be the first time that I have travelled outside Afghanistan, and I try to imagine how it will be. Apart from the basketball, I am looking forward to visiting historical sites and meeting beautiful people.

This trip will show us many new things, although I am happy with my life as it is now. I feel well, and it is a dream come true to be playing in the national team. In the long term I want to finish my studies, and then we will see. For now, I am living day by day.

 

Mohammad Saber Sultani (24) from Kabul: lost both legs aged three in a mine accident

We train for three hours every morning, and two hours every afternoon. Jess, our coach, teaches us well. We do get tired but it’s worth it. We are aiming to win!

Today I am a benchworker making feet for prosthetic limbs. My life is much better now. I am learning to read and write, and with Alberto's help I have built myself a house.

Mohammad Saber Sultani from Kabul 

Mohammad Saber Sultani from Kabul
© ICRC / Jessica Barry

When I was two my father died and a year later I lost my legs. I lived with my uncle, and moved to Pakistan during the Taliban regime. After we returned to Kabul years later, I opened a small grocery shop. It didn’t pay well, but we survived. One of my friends told me about the basketball training at the ICRC's physical rehabilitation centre, here in Kabul. I was interested in sports so I went along. This was how I came to know about the ICRC’s support to people with disabilities, about their vocational training and micro-credit loans. After some time, I took out a loan for my shop, but the business didn't go well.

Nearly all the staff at the centres are former patients who have received a professional training as therapists or technicians. I asked Alberto for a job and was taken on. Today I am a benchworker making feet for prosthetic limbs. My life is much better now. I am learning to read and write, and with Alberto's help I have built myself a house. I am now putting all my efforts into basketball. What is important is to have a positive attitude and play with a good heart.

For me, when I go to Italy, I would like to see Alberto’s home. He helped me build mine. I would like to see his, too.
 

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