Filip Ibrahimi loves basketball so much; he will even hold an umbrella to play it under the rain.
The 16-year-old is the first to arrive to training sessions and the last to leave. On the days when it is not only rainy but also cold, he plays basketball on his phone app or computer.
“The part that I like is discipline. It’s one of my hobbies. I like also to play with my friends. I can play with an umbrella.”
In the three years since Ibrahimi has taken up the sport, it has transformed his life in a variety of ways. The only child of a single mother, he has relished socializing with other youngsters during the four training sessions they have per week. His physical prowess has also improved, and even his home looks different—the living room wall now doubles as a medal display case.
“He has a routine and he’s very strict about his routine. He has good communication with his friends on the team and he expresses his emotions,” Ferdinant Hila, the coach of Ibrahimi’s Durres team, said of the player. “He’s a very sociable person.”
In December Ibrahimi added two more medals to his collection. He scored 12 points to help Durres win gold at the national championships and later powered them to a fifth place-finish at the Regional West Balkans Unified 3x3 Basketball Tournament, held in Tirana, Albania from 1 to 3 December.
The regional tournament was the biggest event that Special Olympics Albania has ever hosted and featured teams from the host nation as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia.
The organization held their first regional activity in 2022, which helped to bring future partners onboard. They now partner with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others.
“They saw a partner who meant serious business and they invited us to cooperate. We’re trying to create possibilities. We are trying to build bridges, trying to connect people and trying to bring each and every one to see this light of the world.”
The Municipality of Tirana has also become a loyal supporter.
“A city that works is a city for all,” Anisa Ruseti, Deputy Mayor of Tirana, said about the reason they backed the cause. “If you have taken care of the most vulnerable, those who have more challenges, then you’ve also done a job for the rest of the citizens. That’s why Special Olympics is such a [natural] thing, because you cannot just build for some people, it should be for everyone.”
While Hysi praised the support and how far Special Olympics Albania has come, he also emphasized that more needs to be done.
The main issue, he said, is that the organization has always only operated via projects. These can be as short-term as two months, which makes support for athletes such as Ibrahimi less stable.
That could soon change, however, as there is a promise from the country’s Prime Minister and the Minister of Education, Sports and Youth that Special Olympics Albania will start to receive annual grants. Hysi takes it as a call to dream even bigger.
“It would be our dream come true if we come to a certain point that we host even bigger events in Albania regarding inclusion,” Hysi said. “I know that you’ve got to be crazy to change the world so I’d say World Games and work towards it.
“We think it’s very important that through sports we bring change also in education and health so we’re ready and also we hope that the government, central and local, will have the will to listen and implement our fantastic activities.”
For his part, Hysi is doing everything to introduce more people to Special Olympics.
In addition to his role as national director, he is a successful hip hop artist and uses his public image to attract attention to the cause, be that through speeches or simply wearing shirts with clearly visible Special Olympics Albania logos on them.
“I wear the logo even at the national festival of music in Albania, so yes, I try to speak about the organization everywhere I get the chance,” Hysi said. “I personally consider it a duty that I should spread the word to each and every individual in Albania. I would like to reach each and every one of them in one way or another to say that it is important for you to know what Special Olympics is and what Special Olympics does.”
It helps, of course, that Hysi also has a strong team by his side.
Having worked for various companies for more than 15 years, Hysi remarked that he has never seen the kind of passion that he sees among the Special Olympics Albania team.
“It takes the will to move mountains and they’re moving mountains,” he said. “So, I’d say Special Olympics Albania, it’s the rose that grows from the plant and it’s growing and it’s blossoming. It’s challenging terrain, but we’re blossoming.”
It is easy to see why Hysi and his team are so tenacious about their work after observing the smiles of the athletes they are fighting for.
Ibrahimi was overjoyed when his team won the national championships. He took the medal in his hands and looked at it in wonder. On the way home to his mother, he chanted the team cheer on the bus together with his friends.
“She is very thankful, mommy, for basketball” Ibrahimi said. “We speak a lot about it when we are at home together.”