China: Afghan wheelchair basketballers break boundaries through sports
Co-organized by the ICRC, the Chinese Red Cross Foundation (CRCF), the Yao Foundation, ZSTU and Elite Sport, the event aimed to enhance participation in sports for people with disabilities and bolster social recognition of their contributions. It also underscored the importance of sports as a means to reintegrate people with disabilities in society.
Shukrullah Zeerak, a physiotherapist supervisor at the ICRC's physical rehabilitation centre in Kabul and manager of the Afghan wheelchair basketball team, shared that each member of the team had received treatment at ICRC-supported physical rehabilitation centres in Afghanistan for either conflict-related injuries such as in landmine explosions or spinal cord injuries or conditions such as polio. Disabled following an explosion, Zeerak said he is living proof of the transformative power of sports.
"Basketball transcends mere competition; it fosters self-esteem and self-confidence among the players, giving them a sense of independence both within the confines of their homes and in the world outside. Moreover, sports empower us to overcome our physical limitations and venture beyond Afghanistan," he said, adding that none of it would have been possible without the ICRC's technical and financial support.
During the event, the two teams demonstrated skills including one-on-one passes while in movement, inbound passes from a seated position and collaborative dunks. The Chinese players also sat on wheelchairs, engaging closely with the Afghan players and confronting the unexpected challenges inherent in wheelchair basketball training and competition. "It was a truly novel experience. For players with limited exposure to wheelchair basketball, the biggest challenge was balance. I found it quite demanding. Afghan players are exceptional at dribbling and shooting, as if there were no obstacles in their path," said CBA player Chen Zi'an.
Boris Kelecevic, deputy head of the ICRC's regional delegation for East Asia, thanked the partners for their support. "The Afghan wheelchair basketball players have persevered through the pain and grief of prolonged armed conflicts and the socio-economic impact these conflicts have had on their lives. They've won my utmost admiration for their resilience and sports spirit," he said.
The event was more than just a basketball game; it was a demonstration of diversity and inclusion in the world of sports. This interactive event once again highlighted the irreplaceable value of the spirit of sports in motivating people to face challenges and become a better self.
Yao Jun, Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of ZSTU, emphasized the significance of the exhibition match in showcasing the value of wheelchair basketball and highlighting the rich culture of sports and basketball in both China and Afghanistan. "As promoters of the BRI, China and Afghanistan have forged a profound friendship and have a history of robust cooperation. The match provided an additional platform for dialogue and exchange, where we can relish the joys and passions of basketball together while engaging in skill-sharing and fostering bonds to strengthen friendships and promote sports, cultural exchange and mutual understanding," said Yao.
Christine Ren, Executive Director of Elite Sport, applauded the importance of breaking boundaries and having wheelchair basketball teams compete with conventional basketball teams. "It sends a resounding message that, regardless of our circumstances, we must muster the courage and confidence to confront adversity. In the face of unknown challenges, we should approach them positively and continue pursuing our dreams unwaveringly," she said.
Founded in 2013, the Afghan national wheelchair basketball team participated in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) Asia-Oceania Championship in Beijing in December 2017. This year's Asian Para Games in Hangzhou is another chance for the team to showcase their talent.
In Afghanistan, over one million people suffer from some form of physical disability. Four decades of war and its aftermath have left the country with one of the highest rates of disability in the world.
The ICRC launched its physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan in 1988. Today, we support seven physical rehabilitation centres across the country: in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, Gulbahar, Faizabad and Lashkar Gah. In the first half of 2023, the seven centres helped over 100,000 patients.
In addition to providing physical rehabilitation services, the ICRC is committed to promoting the social inclusion of people with disabilities. We provide education and vocational training opportunities for people with disabilities and enhance their physical fitness through sports like wheelchair basketball, helping them regain confidence and promoting their inclusion in all aspects of society.