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Every Olympian has a story — but none are perhaps as poignant as those of the refugees.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently over 82 million refugees in the world. For those who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster, the Olympics represent a distant and distressing dream.
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) debuted the Refugee Olympic Team ahead of the Rio Games. Ten refugee athletes from around the world competed in Rio under the Olympic flag.
This year, 29 athletes competing across 12 sports and from 13 host national olympic committees will represent Tokyo’s Refugee Olympic Team. They were selected from among the refugee athletes currently supported by the IOC through the Olympic Scholarships for Refugee Athletes program.
Masomah Ali Zada and Ahmad Badreddin Wais will both represent the team in cycling.
Here are their stories.
Masomah Ali Zada
For 25-year-old Masomah Ali Zada, cycling formed part of the impetus to flee from the difficulties of living in Afghanistan.
As members of the Hazara ethnic minority, Ali Zada and her family spent the early part of her childhood exiled in Iran during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan. It was in Iran that Ali Zada’s father taught her how to ride a bike. When the family returned to Kabul in the early 2000s, Ali Zada had already become a bonafide athlete, and she didn’t want to stop cycling.
Despite the fact that women riding in public was frowned upon by conservative Afghans, Ali Zada charged forward toward her dream. She and a very small handful of women formed a cycling group and eventually became members of the on-again-off-again Afghan national team.
However, Afghanistan’s national team was a far cry from what the majority of the international cycling community is used to. In fact, a 2016, a documentary entitled ‘Les Petites Reines de Kaboul’ (“The Little Queens of Kabul”) showed the team training in the Afghan capital despite being threatened in countless ways by people who believe women cycling is immoral.
In one scene, Ali Zada is deliberately hit by a car, as well as taunted and threatened afterward.
When retired French attorney Patrick Communal saw the film, he knew he wanted to help. He reached out to the Afghan Cycling Federation to get in touch with Ali Zada and her sister. Eventually, he was able to help the girls and their families seek asylum in France in 2017. Communal’s son Thierry became their coach.
Now, Ali Zada and her sister live in Lille, where they are enrolled at the University of Lille as part of a special program for refugees.
Ahmad Badreddin Wais
In 2009, Ahmad Badreddin Wais represented Syria at the junior world championships in Moscow, becoming the first junior from the North African nation to do so. Over the next few years, the promising young cyclist would continue to achieve good results. The situation in Syria, however, was getting worse.
In 2011, a peaceful uprising against the Syrian president turned into a brutally violent civil war. Shortly after the unrest began, Badreddin Wais’ family fled the war-torn nation for neighboring Turkey, but the young cyclist — who was a college student in Damascus at the time — stayed behind to train. After two years, the situation became untenable.
In 2014, Badreddin Wais left Syria on an arduous journey that would take him by land to Beirut, then to Turkey by sea. There, he was reunited with his family. After that, he took another ship from Istanbul to Athens, then flew to Switzerland. At first, he settled in Lausanne with a fellow Syrian; when he registered as a refugee, the then-23-year-old was sent to the German-speaking area of Schwyz.
Badreddin Wais has said that his journey from Syria to Switzerland was so debilitating that he took three years away from major cycling competitions. He returned to cycling at the 2017 World Championships in Bergen, Norway, where he was 60th in the time trial.
Since then, he’s raced at three more time trial world championships and currently rides for the UCI Continental Team Kuwait Pro Cycling Team. His most notable result to date is 9th place at the 2019 Asian continental time trial championship.