Tokyo 2020: Nigara Shaheen on her journey to Refugee Olympic Team
Shaheen, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Pakistan, will be part of the Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo 2020.
Shaheen started her career in karate before switching to judo [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
By Faras Ghani
23 Jul 2021
Nigara Shaheen was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan when she was just six months old.
Her family, based in Jalalabad, fled the war in Afghanistan, walking for two days and two nights in 1993 to cross the border into Pakistan.
Eighteen years later, Shaheen decided to study at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and set foot in the country for the first time since then.
On July 28 this year, Shaheen will make her Olympics debut at the women’s judo event, representing the Refugee Olympic Team at the delayed Tokyo Games.
Her dream of being an Olympian was nearly shattered earlier this month after a team official tested positive for coronavirus while the squad was training in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
“It was hard,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “At one point, we thought we might lose the chance to compete [at the Games] and be a voice to all the refugees. But we overcame it together as a family.”
While in Doha, Al Jazeera spoke to Shaheen about being an Olympian, her love for judo and the obstacles faced on the way to being where she is today.
Shaheen’s family fled Afghanistan when she was six months old [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Al Jazeera: What was your reaction when you found out that you will be going to the Olympics?
Shaheen: I always dreamt of competing at the Olympics and I was very committed to achieving my dream but there were times that I thought I will never be able to achieve it, especially during my time in Russia [for a Master’s degree] while all the judo clubs were shut due to coronavirus.
But I remember the day when the Refugee Olympics Team was announced, it took me almost a day to actually digest the fact that I was selected.
Al Jazeera: What obstacles have you faced in your journey to where you are?
Shaheen: I’ve been harassed and bullied a lot. In Peshawar (northwest Pakistan where Shaheen and her family live as refugees) and Kabul, we were scared and worried for our security. I’ve been targeted and received God knows how many threats on social media. There are Facebook pages created in my name posting stuff about me.
In Russia, I felt I was not welcomed into the society. I travelled there thinking I will be supported to train in judo but didn’t get the support I was expecting.
It’s been hard. But all those things have made me stronger. It was rough but if it wasn’t for all those things, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Al Jazeera: How has the support at home been?
Shaheen: I’ve been really lucky to have the immense support of my family. I’ve been attacked so many times on the way to training with my family but grateful because my parents knew my passion and always motivated me and were beside me no matter what.
Al Jazeera: How was it growing up in Pakistan?
Shaheen: When you’re a refugee in another country and very young, you feel you’re not so much integrated into society. As a kid growing up in Pakistan, I had a lot of anxiety and life was rougher than other kids around me.
But sport really was a safe haven for me not just for my mental health but also for giving me the opportunity to integrate into society. Judo will forever be my love.
Al Jazeera: How did judo come about in your life?
Shaheen: I was into martial arts, wrestling, I really liked those. I wanted to join any martial arts club that I could. I started off with karate. The area we were living in had no other club so I had no choice. At an under-14 tournament in Islamabad, my coach asked if I wanted to play judo as there weren’t many female judo players. I agreed and competed in judo while wearing karate clothes.
As soon as I stepped onto that mat, I felt something. I felt I found my passion. And that’s when I left karate and took up judo.
Al Jazeera: It took 18 years for you to visit Afghanistan again. How did you feel on your first trip back?
Shaheen: It was emotional. In Peshawar, when I was in school, they would sing Pakistan’s national anthem every morning. I felt very welcome growing up in Peshawar but while I have deep respect for the country, deep down I felt a little disintegrated during the national anthem.
Going back to Afghanistan was difficult, a lot of things were new for me and it took me time to adapt.
Additionally, I was asked why I called myself Afghani since I grew up in Pakistan. I had to face that, too.
Shaheen hopes her presence at Tokyo 2020 will give hope to young Afghan girls dreaming of the Olympics [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Al Jazeera: By being there at the Olympics, what message are you able to give young Afghan girls?
Shaheen: My presence itself should give hope to all young Afghan girls that are dreaming of the Olympics. I have faced all the obstacles they are facing. But If I can do it, so can they. It is hard but nothing is out of the human capacity.
Find what you’re really passionate about and follow it no matter what.
Al Jazeera: So what happens after the Olympics are over?
Shaheen: I haven’t really thought about it yet. I will always be connected with sports. It has given me so much. I love judo and throughout the struggles of my life, the only safe haven and mental calmness for me was sports. I want to give back to the sports community. I will find my way.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Refugee Olympic Team: High­light­ing the voice of mil­lions at Tokyo
A squad of 29 refugees will take part in 12 sports at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
14 Jul 2021
‘Re­gret­table’: Tokyo Olympics to be held with­out spec­ta­tors
Sum­mer Games or­gan­is­er an­nounces no fans in the stands as COVID-19 surge hits Japan.
8 Jul 2021
Vi­su­al­is­ing 70 years of refugee jour­neys
On World Refugee Day, Al Jazeera looks at the painful jour­neys refugees were forced on in 2020 de­spite glob­al pan­dem­ic.
20 Jun 2021
Nuclear deal unlikely unless Iran releases US prisoners: Report
US orders families of Ukraine embassy staff to leave on war fears
Armenian president resigns over lack of influence
Is the bubble about to burst for Bitcoin?
Airbus cancels $6bn contract with Qatar Airways after paint fight
Omicron ‘sub-variant’ throws up new virus questions
Taiwan reports new large-scale Chinese air force incursion
Pfizer, Moderna boosters up to 90% effective against Omicron: CDC
Follow Al Jazeera English:
© 2022 Al Jazeera Media Network
You rely on Al Jazeera for truth and transparency
We understand that your online privacy is very important and consenting to our collection of some personal information takes great trust. We ask for this consent because it allows Al Jazeera to provide an experience that truly gives a voice to the voiceless. You have the option to decline the cookies we automatically place on your browser but allowing Al Jazeera and our trusted partners to use cookies or similar technologies helps us improve our content and offerings to you. You can change your privacy preferences at any time by selecting ‘Cookie preferences’ at the bottom of your screen.To learn more, please view our Cookie Policy.