REPORTAGE. “Sport is my fight, my way of resisting,” asserts Fathima, an Afghan karateka who lives in the Lesbos refugee camp

Invisible, or almost. Refugee women represent barely 20% of sports practitioners registered by the association Yoga and Sport With Refugees in Lesbos (Greece). However, they are often the first to whom sport could benefit for its implications in terms of health, well-being or even integration. Near the Mavrovouni camp, the sports association seeks to support them, both in their daily practice and towards the top level.

“The Taliban forbade women to train, to play sports, to be able to improve their living conditions, to be able to study. They did not give us the right to leave our homes. It was becoming very dangerous so we fled with my family”explains Fathima Mirzahi, karateka. Serious face, almond eyes, pulled shirt and impeccable appearance, the young woman has been living for six months in the Mavrovouni camp, in Greece.

Aged 15, she had to leave everything behind. I trained every day in Afghanistan, I competed internationally in Pakistan, Tajikistan, India. All I want is to go to any country that will let me practice my passion.” adds the young lady.

“Sport is my fight, my way of resisting. I want to make my family and my country proud. I want to participate in the Olympics for Afghanistan.”

Fathima Mirzahi, refugee

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According to the latest report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)dated June 16, 2022, pAlmost 2.7 million Afghans live outside their country with refugee status. Fathima, she is still patient in the middle of the white tents of the Mavrovouni camp, while her refugee status is accepted.

En waiting to return to the world circuits, the young woman made it a point of honor to maintain her training. As soon as she arrived on the island, she rushed to join the nearest gym. Ehe shares it from now on her acquaintances with the other women, during the course of karate.

“Shaaaaaah! Stronger ! Upper !“, the cries of Fathima resonate in the small gym. The doors have been closed, a sign slipped at the entrance: “Only women are allowed”. The poster is translated in turn into English, Arabic and Farsi. To attract more women to its activities, the association Yoga and Sport With Refugees has developed activities reserved exclusively for them. “For me it is important. I’ve always trained like this and I wouldn’t be confident otherwise.” Fatima explains.

Warming up for the women's karate class in the Yoga and Sport With Refugees gym, May 23, 2022. (Louise Le Borgne / Franceinfo:sport)

“Of course all the activities are open to everyone, but for cultural reasons Afghan women are not used to training with men and could be teased when they return to camp. So that they can practice a physical activity with confidence, we have set up these courses, intended for women, in karate and swimming”, explains Estelle Jean, director of the association Yoga and Sport With Refugees.

Fathima Marzahi is an Afghan karate hopeful.  The arrival of the Taliban disrupted her daily life and the young woman had to flee with her family.  She now lives in the Mavrovouni camp, in Lesbos, where she tries to continue her training, while waiting for her papers.

This Saturday morning, two other women joined the karate class. Difficult to keep up with the pace of the high-level, uncompromising athlete. “Wow, that hurts a little.” reacts Rebecca when cashing the lightning kick from Fathima in her boxing pad. In her twenties, the young woman from Ethiopia came to “get back in shape”. She has been traveling the Mediterranean roads for a year now. Beyond the physical practice, Rebecca says she is happy to find other women” with whom to exchange in a serene atmosphere.

“The gym allows them to practice activities that are close to their hearts in a more protected place than the camp. Here their health improves, they can breathe”, adds Nina Of Winterco-founder of the association. Bijou, a Cameroonian refugee, corroborates her words, highlighting the daily difficulties that hinder her practice: “I don’t mind that it’s between women, but for me it’s mostly a question of niche. I don’t come often, so after the fitness class, I continued with karate. When I leave the camp, I have to go get food, work, take care of daily life. I can only come here on weekends.” blows the young woman in pink tights on a weight machine.

“I would like to resume my training and become world champion. But here, nobody is at my level”

Fathima Marzahi, high-level refugee athlete

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The association’s gym is equipped: sports bras, leggings and T-shirts are neatly ordered at the entrance, available to sportswomen. But when it comes to karate kimonos and suitable protection, the equipment is lacking. It is therefore in leggings that the young woman manages the warm-up and the exercises in a mixture of Farsi, Japanese and a few words of English. “These classes clear my mind but I would like there to be more people, more opposition and more material”grimaced the young woman. The sportswoman therefore fights against herself, staring at her reflection in the mirror, which sends back a warrior face. An exile’s face.

Fathima Mirzahi, Afghan refugee, warms up on the island of Lesbos, May 23, 2022. (Louise Le Borgne)

If Fathima is the only high-level sportswoman in karate, the association registers, for its part, more and more women in its courses, whether mixed or not: “It’s linked to the end of Ramadan, the good weather but also the work of a volunteer who made sure to bring the women to the gym”, emphasizes Estelle Jean, before concluding: “The objective is to play sports together, to have this physical and moral breath, to erase all cultural differences and gender stereotypes, and to support sportswomen like Fathima in their sporting ambitions, as far that we can”. And why not until the Olympic Games, if karate returns there.

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REPORTAGE. “Sport is my fight, my way of resisting,” asserts Fathima, an Afghan karateka who lives in the Lesbos refugee camp

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