Feature

Meet five of the refugee athletes targeting Tokyo 2020

Read about five Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders who will be trying to compete for the second Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo.

By Rory Jiwani ·

The second Refugee Olympic Team (EOR) will contest the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this summer.

No fewer than 51 athletes, all holders of Refugee Athlete Scholarships, are training hard to try and make the Games in the Japanese capital.

As was the case for its debut at Rio 2016, the team's chef de mission will be Kenya's former marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe.

Based in 19 host nations and hailing originally from 11 different countries, the athletes have overcome great adversity to reach the point where they could compete at the Olympic Games.

Nine of the 10 team members from Rio are hoping to make a second Games, including Yonas Kinde who is among our first five refugee athlete profiles.

Asif Sultani

Country of origin: Afghanistan

Host country: Australia

Date of birth: 31 December 1995

Discipline: Karate (-67kg)

Sultani fled Afghanistan aged seven for Iran where he was persecuted because of his ethnicity. At 16, he moved on again and made it to Indonesia from where he took a precarious boat journey to Australia.

He recalls, "There was a big chance of drowning. The engine stopped working in the middle of the ocean. That was one of the most horrifying times of my life. People were getting ready, putting their life jackets on to jump in the water. Some people were crying. I told myself this might be it, the end of the journey.”

Luckily, the engine started again and they made it to Australia with Sultani's life turning around after three months in a detention centre which he says was "the first time in my life I discovered freedom".

Having taken up martial arts for self-defence while in Iran, they soon became his passion and he credits them with teaching him life lessons including respect, discipline and resilience.

Now 25, he trains with one of Australia's top karate squads, in Maitland under Daniel Spice, as he bids to fulfil his Olympic dream.

He also inspires others, working as a personal fitness trainer and disability support worker.

A believer in the power of mediation and mindfulness, Sultani passes on his knowledge and experience through his Airbnb experience.

His ultimate goal is to stay active as an athlete, and to inspire and empower people to be the best versions of themselves.

"Meditation has helped me a lot, especially as a refugee. Seeking asylum is really traumatic and meditation has really helped me to overcome my challenges, calm me down." - Asif Sultani

Eyad Masoud

Country of origin: Syria

Host country: New Zealand

Date of birth: 10 January 1995

Discipline: Swimming (50m and 100m freestyle)

Masoud fled Syria nearly four years ago because of the decade-long civil war.

With his family, he first reached Saudi Arabia and later ended up in New Zealand where he claimed refugee status.

He now trains and teaches at the AUT Millennium Sports Centre, part of the Auckland University of Technology, where he also studies Mechanical Engineering.

He told NZ Team, "When I first came here, it took me a while to adjust. But it didn't take much longer until I actually felt like part of the community.

"I was welcomed, I started working and swimming over here. Everybody knows me, everybody says hello, everyone was interested in my story and background. And nobody judged."

Having swam back in Syria, Masoud has been able to take his training to the next level thanks to coach David Wright and the facilities in Auckland, as well as the new-found "consistency" in his everyday life.

He added, "Coming to a place where everything is steady, and you're getting along well with your training... It allows you to progress and see how far you can go.

"I do consider New Zealand as my second home. As far as I'm concerned I'm actually part of that community so I feel like it's my duty to bring back happiness and put back some positive energy into the community, as much as they gave me when I first came here."

"I would like to say to all the refugees around the world, 'Be patient. You're strong, you're loved and you're supported.'" - Eyad Masoud

Wessam Salamana

Country of origin: Syria

Host country: Germany

Date of birth: 26 October 1985

Discipline: Boxing (-63kg)

Salamana worked for the oil ministry in Syria, living with his family on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

He represented Syria at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but made the difficult decision to leave his country for his family's safety and to be able to continue his sporting career.

Now living in Saarbrücken with his wife and two children and training in nearby Voelklingen under the watchful eye of Heiko Staack, the 35-year-old was runner-up at Germany's national boxing and kick-boxing championships.

In 2020, he won his opening bout at January's Strandja tournament in Sofia against Poland's Dominik Palak before losing out to home fighter Vensan Kirkorov.

He is now training hard to try and secure qualification to his second Games and his first as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Masomah Ali Zada

Country of origin: Afghanistan

Host country: France

Date of birth: 11 March 1996

Discipline: Road Cycling

In 2016, Masomah Ali Zada and her sister Zahra appeared in a TV documentary about Afghan female cyclists entitled "Les Petites Reines de Kaboul" ("The Little Queens of Kabul").

It showed them being threatened and even attacked by people who believe women riding bicycles is immoral.

After watching the programme, a retired French lawyer called Patrick Communal arranged for them to come to France on a humanitarian visa and made a successful application for asylum.

The sisters now attend the University of Lille with Masomah awarded a Refugee Athlete Scholarship in June 2019.

The 24-year-old competes in races in northern France and abroad as she works towards her goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

"By taking part in the Olympic Games, I want to convince those who think a woman on a bicycle is inappropriate or find it strange that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is a cyclist that no, it's normal." - Masomah Ali Zada to Paris Match

Yonas Kinde

Country of origin: Ethiopia

Host country: Luxembourg

Date of birth: 7 May 1980

Discipline: Athletics (marathon)

Kinde is hoping to take part in his second Olympic Games in Tokyo having been a member of the first Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016.

He left his homeland in 2012, later telling UNHCR it was "impossible to live there" and "very dangerous for my life".

A high-class cross-country runner in Ethiopia, Kinde spent a year in a refugee camp in Luxembourg before being awarded refugee status.

He also joined a local running club and soon established himself as the best long-distance runner in his adopted home country before beating the Olympic qualifying standard time at the 2015 Frankfurt Marathon.

After finishing 89th in the Rio Marathon, he lowered his personal best in Frankfurt in October 2019 before fulfilling his dream of running in the 2020 Tokyo Marathon where his hero Abebe Bikila retained his Olympic title in the 1964 Games.

After Tokyo 2020 was postponed by a year, he told the Olympic Channel Podcast, "The dream is still there and our dream has not changed.

"The Refugee Olympic Team is a symbol of hope, our hope is still alive and I'm hoping to compete in 2021 in Tokyo."