Asif Sultani: From war-torn Afghanistan to the Olympic Refugee Team

Going from the war-torn Middle East where he was unable to attend school or his dojo, to becoming a refugee and Australian Tokyo 2020 hopeful, karate athlete Asif Sultani’s story is one of inspiration, gratitude and resilience.

The 24-year-old spent the first two decades of his life as an outcast, seeking asylum until he was finally ‘treated like a human being’ when he came to Australia and was offered an IOC Refugee Scholarship.

Asif Sultani’s journey began when he was seven years old.

Due to ongoing war and conflict in Afghanistan, Asif and his family moved to Iran and although they escaped the war, they were still treated as second-class citizens, with Asif spending his childhood being bullied due to his ethnicity.

He was also was unable to attend school because of his status as an asylum seeker.

“I was an asylum seeker so when my family fled from Afghanistan to Iran, we didn’t have any rights,” Asif said.

“Whether you were a child or an adult, you weren’t allowed to do much, especially if you were from Afghanistan and that meant that I wasn’t able to go to school.

“That really impacted me and made me question my value and who I was. I remember I would get angry at my dad and blame him,” he shared.

I would ask him why we were so different, why couldn’t I just be a normal kid who could go to school and study and become someone. Why couldn’t I have a dream?

Asif decided to take up karate as a way of protecting himself from bullies and the outside world as his father would often warn him about the dangers of being an asylum seeker out in public.

Despite falling in love with the sport instantly, Asif was barred from the dojo shortly after starting, due to where he came from, but undeterred by his situation, he set up his own training in his backyard and practiced in secret alongside his friends.

“Martial arts didn’t just teach me to punch and kick, it taught me discipline, respect, honour and compassion which I was able to apply to my life.”

He spent the next few years of his life making the best of his situation, with karate providing a positive light amidst being outcast and unable to socialise or participate in the community.

In 2012, the then 16-year-old had to make a momentous decision. Asif was able to leave Iran and the ongoing persecution he faced, but had to leave his family behind.

He travelled from Iran to Indonesia then to Christmas Island where he spent three months.

He was later transferred to a Western Australian detention centre before being sent to Tasmania and finally, to Sydney, where he lived in community detention for young asylum seekers.

He would remain there until he was 18.

Self-motivated and determined, the teenager continued practicing his martial arts with the help of staff who worked at the detention centre.

“We had a gym at the camp that was open from 3.00 pm until 7.00 pm and I would be there the whole time,” Asif recalled.

“We had a trainer who would come in a couple of times a week and he was very supportive, he’d hold the pads for me and help me to work out.

“There were also two officers who used to come in early in the morning to train with me, even though they didn’t have to. It wasn’t part of their job, they just wanted to help me,” he continued.

“That was when I realised that Australia was a country where I could turn my dreams into reality. I’d never had that support and it really encouraged and motivated me even more.

It was the first time in my life I had been with people who were willing to accept me for who I was and the first time I’d ever been treated like a human being.

“They encouraged me, and I started to think that one day, maybe, I would be treated like everyone else instead of being looked down on.”

In 2014, after spending two decades of his life as an asylum seeker, he was finally granted refugee status.

The first thing Asif wanted to do as an 18-year-old was to go to school for the first time in his life, but due to his age found it difficult finding somewhere that would accept him.

Eventually, a high school in Maitland offered him a spot in Year 10. He completed Years 10, 11 and 12 over three years and graduated in 2016.

Asif was also able to step foot inside a dojo for the first time since he was 12 and would train every day before and after school.

“Because I was quite poor, I didn’t have a car so every morning before school I would wake up at 5.00 am, run seven kilometres to the dojo then run back home and run to school. Then I’d do it again after school.”

Asif started participating in local karate competitions and although he finished poorly in the beginning, a friend, Ali, lit a fire in his belly and by 2016, he was ranked first in NSW.

“In 2014, a friend of mine, Ali, who was also from Afghanistan, competed alongside me at a World Cup competition,” Asif recounted.

“We both lost every fight. He was a little bit older so wanted to retire with a win, and when he couldn’t, he just broke down and cried.

“He said to me, ‘Promise me for the next world cup, you’re going to represent us both, represent all refugees and win that trophy’.”

In 2017, Asif won the NSW World Cup trophy and after seeing the Rio 2016 Olympic Games which included its first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, set his sights on Tokyo 2020.

Asif also received an IOC scholarship to help him achieve that dream. The IOC’s Olympic Solidarity provides funding for 37 refugee athletes around the world, to assist with training and building a future in their new countries.

“When I heard about the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, I didn’t really know that could be me one day,” he said

“I had grown up accepting that I wouldn’t have the same opportunities as other people because I was always seeking asylum.

“As a kid, always hearing that you’re not good enough or that you will never have the same privileges as everyone else makes you believe that it’s true.

“Hearing about the first Refugee Olympic Team in Rio inspired me and gave me hope so I applied for the IOC Refugee Scholarship and in October 2018 found out that I had been accepted.

I cried because I was so happy. I never thought as a refugee that I would have an opportunity like this in my life.

Asif hasn’t seen his family since he left Iran and sadly, his father passed away in 2013, not long after Asif arrived in Australia.

“That is one of the hardest things about becoming a refugee, that you never know when you will see your family again.

“When I left in 2012, I had no idea it would be the last time I would see my father and it’s the same with my mum, I don’t know if the next time I meet her, will be at her grave,” he shared.

But, rather than focus on the hardships of his life so far, Asif wants to act as a ‘light of hope’ for other refugees, especially children.

“I went through a lot of hardships, especially as a kid which does affect you a lot more when you’re younger, but the one thing I never lost was hope,” he said.

“I always just kept going, even at the age of 12 after I was banned from the dojo I didn’t lose hope, I set up my own training in my backyard because I had this hope in my heart that one day I would be able to tell people this story and inspire them.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to have someone like me to look up to, someone who was a refugee that went through what I went through and was able to get through it and be successful.

“It is so important for refugees to know that regardless of your circumstances, no one can take away your ability to dream.

“I want these young asylum seekers to know that their struggle is my struggle, I understand, I went through it and I never want them to lose hope.

“Hope is what keeps you alive and they are stronger than whatever negativity they face.”
Asif says that his mother is to thank for his resilience and positive outlook on life.

“My mother was a really big influence, she always taught me that no matter how bad things were, your attitude was most important and you needed to be thankful for what you did have in your life.

“I would try to apply that to everything I went through, all the negativity that would come from other kids who would bully me, I would overcome those feelings with gratitude and use them to create the best version of myself.

“The more difficulties I faced, the more resilient I became. I would look at other kids and accept that I didn’t have the same privileges they did but the only way to overcome that was to survive and thrive.

“My mum taught me to have hope in my heart that one day I could become whoever I wanted.”

Even today, Asif practices daily gratitude, keeping notes in a gratitude jar and utilising positive self-talk.

“I stand in front of the mirror every day and say to myself, ‘I can, I will, I must survive, I can, I will, I must thrive.’

“It was something that I’ve always done because when you don’t have anyone to encourage you, you need to encourage yourself.”

At Rio 2016, the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team of 10 athletes competed alongside 11,000 fellow athletes, sending a message of hope and inclusion to millions of refugees around the world and inspiring the world with the strength of their human spirit.

Asif continues to train with the goal of making the Olympic Refugee Team in Tokyo.

Although competing at Tokyo 2020 is a dream for Asif, inspiring compassion and unity is his primary goal.

“Competing at Tokyo would be amazing but not because I want to win a medal for myself,” he said.

“Just being able to go and compete, like a ‘normal’ person and show that a refugee can achieve just as much as anyone else.

We are just as capable and at the end of the day we are all just one race, the human race.

“For me, it’s about going over there and representing the power of human compassion and unity.

“As refugees, we didn’t choose our lives, we didn’t choose to be persecuted or separated from our families or to flee our homes, but as individuals, these experiences make us strong and together, we are unstoppable.”

Originally published for

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