Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 

The opening ceremonies for the Olympics and Paralympics are always an emotional, proud moment, but the Tokyo ceremony in August 2021 was a particularly poignant moment for Afghan Paralympian Abbas Karimi.

The swimmer, a refugee who has lived in the US since 2016, wasn’t surrounded by other Afghan competitors as he marched into the stadium. Despite surviving grueling training schedules amid pandemic lockdowns, Afghanistan’s premier athletes were forced to withdraw at the last moment because the Taliban takeover of their country meant athletes couldn’t secure safe flights to Japan.

Instead, Abbas Karimi, one of the six athletes representing the Refugee Paralympic Team, became very aware of just how far he had come since he was born in Kabul in 1997, without arms, and began his difficult journey through refugee camps and into the safety of the US. He had long dreamed of one day competing on the international stage as a swimmer and - despite all odds - Abbas had arrived. 

“The obstacles I overcame to achieve this are, for many people, unimaginable,” he wrote, six months later in an article for The Guardian. “I felt the power and the importance of representation. It was time for the world to see what people with disabilities - including refugees - can achieve when they have the right opportunities.” 

And that is exactly what the world saw. How did this young swimmer, who specializes in the notoriously grueling butterfly stroke, make his way from Kabul, via Turkey and the US, to Tokyo and sporting greatness?

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 
 Abbas, carrying the flag for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights

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James Lumley
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The opening ceremonies for the Olympics and Paralympics are always an emotional, proud moment, but the Tokyo ceremony in August 2021 was a particularly poignant moment for Afghan Paralympian Abbas Karimi.

The swimmer, a refugee who has lived in the US since 2016, wasn’t surrounded by other Afghan competitors as he marched into the stadium. Despite surviving grueling training schedules amid pandemic lockdowns, Afghanistan’s premier athletes were forced to withdraw at the last moment because the Taliban takeover of their country meant athletes couldn’t secure safe flights to Japan.

Instead, Abbas Karimi, one of the six athletes representing the Refugee Paralympic Team, became very aware of just how far he had come since he was born in Kabul in 1997, without arms, and began his difficult journey through refugee camps and into the safety of the US. He had long dreamed of one day competing on the international stage as a swimmer and - despite all odds - Abbas had arrived. 

“The obstacles I overcame to achieve this are, for many people, unimaginable,” he wrote, six months later in an article for The Guardian. “I felt the power and the importance of representation. It was time for the world to see what people with disabilities - including refugees - can achieve when they have the right opportunities.” 

And that is exactly what the world saw. How did this young swimmer, who specializes in the notoriously grueling butterfly stroke, make his way from Kabul, via Turkey and the US, to Tokyo and sporting greatness?

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 
 Abbas, carrying the flag for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo

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A pool in Kabul

When he was born, Mohammad Abbas Karimi’s parents cried. “They cried so much,” he told CNN, “They got really upset that I was born this way. And they were really worried.” 

While they raised him with love and support, 'just like a normal child', they worried about his future, he said. And they couldn’t shield him from the world, especially the children at school who mocked and taunted him. So, at the age of 12, Abbas took up kickboxing. “I wanted to defend myself,” he said. 

By 13, he discovered the sport that would change his life: swimming. His brother built a 25-meter swimming pool for the community near their home. Because of his condition, Abbas initially felt he couldn’t join in. 

“I was so scared,” he said. “I asked the lifeguard: ‘Do you think I can learn how to swim?’” He said, ‘Of course you can. There are people in the world who don’t have arms and legs and who swim.’ So, I put on a life jacket and didn’t drown. That day gave me a lot of hope.”

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 
Abbas Karimi won Silver at the Tokyo Paralympics

A life-changing moment

Swimming also changed the course of Abbas’ life. Before he started swimming, he’d become, by his own admission, angry and violent. 

“I believe without swimming, I’d be a very dangerous person. I’d be in trouble. Swimming opened my heart. It's in my soul,” he said. The water became his safe space; he felt reborn. 

When he learned how to swim properly, Abbas and his coaches discovered that he had huge lower body strength, so he focused on backstroke, and butterfly - a stroke in which swimmers dolphin-kick and turn their whole body into a wave. Success came quickly, Abbas became Afghan national champion in his first competition. But he soon realized that, if he wanted to really progress, he had to leave. 

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 
Abbas realized that if he wanted to progress as a swimmer, he’d need to leave Afghanistan

Becoming a refugee

“There were a lot of bombs exploding in Kabul,” he said in an interview with the International Paralympic Committee. “I wasn’t the type of kid to stay inside the house, so I could have been killed at any time if I stayed.”

With his life in danger, he flew to Iran, then walked for three days in extreme conditions across the Zagros mountain range to Turkey. He spent the next four years in refugee camps. Throughout, he carried on swimming, walking, and taking the bus to nearby pools. 

“It was swimming that kept me going,” he wrote. “At every point and in every refugee camp, I would find a swimming pool. And, each time, I would be reminded of feelings of worth, acceptance, and respect.”

Swimming successes continued. He won 15 medals and two Turkish national championships. Even so, as a refugee, he couldn’t compete internationally. Meanwhile, in the US, a retired teacher and former wrestling coach by the name of Mike Ives was watching from Portland, Oregon. He saw Abbas swimming on Facebook and marveled at his talent. He connected with Abbas in 2015 and started a letter-writing campaign that led to the Afghan swimmer settling as a refugee in the US in 2016. 

Abbas Karimi: Champion for disability and refugee rights 
Abbas Karimi international swimmer and Silver medal winner

Going international

 Abbas Karimi, who now lives and trains in Florida, lived with Mike Ives in Portland when he first came to the US. Mike introduced him to Denning Baker, head coach of swimming team the Oregon Reign Masters, and his chance to compete internationally followed. 

In 2017, Abbas competed on the refugee team at the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City and won Silver in the 50-meter butterfly. Then, in 2019, he competed in the world championships in London, ahead of the 2020 Paralympics, postponed to 2021 because of Covid-19.

It was, he wrote on his Instagram account, ‘a dream come true’.

Many mentors 

 Abbas has had several mentors in his lifetime. He considers Mike Ives to be his ‘American father’. In addition to taking Abbas under his wing, he taught Abbas how to drive, using his feet. Abbas’ Afghan coach, Qasim Hamidi, who first told him he’d be champion, instilled in Abbas his self-belief.

His father was his ultimate inspiration, however. He remained in Afghanistan but watched his son’s career blossom from afar. He was, Abbas told The New York Times, his earliest fan, saying: “You don’t have arms, but you became a swimmer, and you are something now.’” His sudden death in 2019, hit Abbas hard.

UNHCR 

Karimi has been a formal UNHCR supporter since 2021 and regularly speaks about his disability, sports, and refugee issues.

On International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 2021, Abbas featured on UNHCR’s global social media channels in posts about the power of sport and how much it has impacted his life.

His support of the body predates his speaking engagements, however. Directly after winning his Silver medal in Mexico City in 2017, Abbas and Mike Ives flew to Geneva to take part in the UNHCR’s Global Refugee Youth Consultations. 

Representation, Abbas said, is a responsibility, and the fight to improve the rights of disabled people is of great importance to him: “Until our rights are fully respected and protected in an inclusive society, people with disabilities will not have the same opportunities to contribute and progress.”

When he was born, his parents cried tears of worry. If society was fully inclusive and gave disabled people the same opportunities as anyone else, they wouldn’t have feared for his future.

Now Abbas wants to campaign for a world in which, when a disabled child is born, parents cry ‘tears of happiness’ - as they would for any other child.

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