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Community Impact

Ali Embraces New Life with the Support of Special Olympics

Afghan refugee living in Spain shares how the ‘Unified with Refugees’ sports platform helped him integrate into his new community

“I lost it all in one day. Having to leave your country because of war and terrorism, losing your life, education, friends and relationships in a single night is very tough.”

When Ali first arrived in Spain as a refugee, he experienced a mix of emotions. On one hand, he felt relief at "regaining my freedom." On the other hand, he felt insecure because his life had completely changed in a matter of days. He was now living in a country he didn't know; with a language he didn't speak.

Despite these challenges, Ali's strength of mind, perseverance, and language abilities, along with the support of the Special Olympics 'Unified with Refugees' sports platform, helped him overcome these obstacles.

"Adjusting to a new culture was challenging for me, coming from a completely different background. Language, religion and cultural differences presented barriers to making friends. Being introverted added a level of difficulty.

“I committed myself to learning Spanish and I have a good level now so I can communicate. I now have some friends from Spain and Latin America, as well as from other various countries in the Middle East and Africa.”

Back in Kabul, Ali was studying urbanism, but he had to leave his home country in 2021 when the national government collapsed. He managed to obtain a VISA and arrived in Spain later that year "with just some clothes and my ID." Since then, he has been living at the Refugee Reception Center (CAR) in Seville.

Two men, one wearing a red shirt and another a blue one, and a woman wearing a blue shirt pose for the camera while the man in the middle holds a football
Ali shares a fun moment with Special Olympics Spain athletes

Ali has always been passionate about sports. Growing up, he tried martial arts and was an avid boxer. However, his favorite sport has always been football, "as it happens with many Afghans.

“Many know the cities because of the football clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Cádiz, Almería, Sevilla. I could not have imagined that one day I would live in Spain.

“I'm a devoted Barcelona fan and have a deep love for football.”

In 2023, Ali was invited to participate in a Unified football exhibition match in Seville. This event was organized by Special Olympics in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), the CAR and the City of Seville. For Ali, this was a life-changing opportunity that he thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from.

“Programs like ‘Unified with Refugees’ hold significant importance because they provide opportunities for competition. Every team includes people with and without disabilities, fostering collaboration.

“It's crucial not to marginalize anyone. Kindness alone isn't enough; inclusivity is essential. Sports send a powerful message of unity, integration into society, and the equal rights of all individuals to live, grow, study, learn, play sports and fulfill their dreams.”

Since its inception in 2016 with the support of UNHCR and LCIF, Special Olympics ‘Unified with Refugees’ has been instrumental in providing crucial social integration opportunities through sports to two of the world’s most marginalized populations—refugees and people with intellectual disabilities worldwide.

So far, over 10,000 refugee youths with and without ID from reception centers, refugee camps and community centers across the world have been positively impacted. It currently has active programming across Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Kenya, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand and Uganda.

Ali, 24, added, "It's very important to change the mindset surrounding marginalized groups. We are all equal and deserve the same opportunities. For example, when hiring managers eliminate biases, everyone has an equal chance, free from prejudice, to get a job.

"Being a refugee wasn't a choice I made willingly. However, we must make the most of the hand life deals us. Throughout history, people have been unfairly categorized, particularly Black people and other minorities."

"Regardless of how hard you work, without opportunities achieving your dreams is nearly impossible."

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