As a karate champion and teacher, Mina Asadi, brought honor to her country and relief to her countrymen — until she felt forced to leave Afghanistan. Now she is continuing her mission — using sport to help with emotional trauma — in a migrant camp in Indonesia.
Born in 1992, Mina was just a few years old when her parents left Afghanistan for Pakistan, to escape the brutal civil war. It was there, in Quetta that Mina discovered sport. She had a talent for karate, and began training seriously at the age of 12. She was already winning medals as a young teenager — but not for her own country. She competed under the flag of Pakistan, and even became a member of the Pakistan national karate team in the 2010 South Asian Games in Bangladesh.
Mina was forced to compete under a fake name and identity; the Pakistani officials forged a passport for her with the name “Zohra.” She found it painful to win medals, not for herself and her country, but as a refugee, mocked and humiliated by her teammates because of her Afghan identity.
So in 2011 Mina Asadi came home to Afghanistan, bringing her talent and her energy with her. There her life became even harder, because of the old traditions and restrictions against women.
She went first to Jaghori, in Ghazni Province. But the moment she got there the Mullahs and community elders raised fierce objections to her opening a sports club for women. She received some very serious threats, and left Ghazni for Kabul.
There the resistance was more subtle. Mina was determined to succeed, however, and she was able to open the Mellat Shotokan Karate Club, the first of its kind for women, in western Kabul in August, 2011.
There were not a lot of girls at first. The old traditions are still strong. But women eventually started registering for this club, and young boys also came to learn karate.
Mina’s first match under her own country’s flag was in 2011. She was the only girl in Afghanistan national karate team that won a bronze medal in the first Southeast Asian Karate Championships in New Delhi.
This drew the attention of the Afghan media, which was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it encouraged girls to do sports, but it also made extremists even more determined to fight against women participating in sports.
The threats began again, and in early 2015 Mina was forced to leave her native land. Now she trains Afghan migrants in Indonesia.
Over the past two years, emigration has reached crisis proportions in Afghanistan. The factors are many: the withdrawal of the international forces has led to a rise in insecurity in some areas, while the decline in money and projects means that fewer and fewer Afghans are adequately employed.
According to UNHCR, more than 200,000 Afghans left their homeland last year, with 2016 likely to see an even higher number risking their lives for their dream of security and prosperity. Afghans make up the second largest group of asylum seekers (after Syrians).
Indonesia is a popular destination. Its loose borders make it a convenient way station for those hoping to settle in Australia. But the Australian government has tightened its asylum procedures in recent years, leaving many stuck for months, even years, in Indonesian refugee camps.
When Mina got to Indonesia, she was surprised at the poor conditions, and at the toll the experience was taking on the migrants.
“When I was first brought into this camp, I noticed the bad situation that the migrants were facing,” she said during our conversation over chat “I saw people among the refugees who have been there for more than 5 years.”
This led to physical and mental problems, she insists.
“Many of the refugees had become weak and depressed under mental pressures,” she continues.
Mina decided to try and help, by opening a sports club for the refugees. The Cisarua Refugee Shotokan Karate Club opened its doors in the refugee camp.
She has received an enthusiastic reception from the refugees, boys and girls who can receive physical training free of charge.
“Sport makes the refugees forget their problems and sadness for a while,” Mina added.
The latest statistics released by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in early March, 2016, show that 6,800 Afghans live in Indonesia. According to the Ministry, only 42 have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan this year.
The report also mentions that 4,500 of these refugees are supported by IOM, while the other 2,300 live on their own in various cities of Indonesia. Despite the Australian government’s restrictive policies on accepting more refugees, the Ministry reports that the number of refugees in Indonesia is increasing: from December 2015 until early March, 128 people have been added to this number.
Mina’s influence has spread beyond Afghanistan and Indonesia; former students of hers have followed her lead, and are conducting trainings for their fellow countrymen in refugee camps in other countries as well.
Sixteen-year-old Shabnam Karimi left Afghanistan last year and now lives in Germany.
When she was training in Kabul, Shabnam was a star: she won four gold medals, four silver and three bronze in national and international competitions.
“Insecurity, the vague and ambiguous future that I was facing in Afghanistan, resulted in my family emigrating to Germany,” said Shabnam in a conversation via Skype. “When we arrived in the camp, I noticed that my mental situation was getting worse and worse. The other girls my age were no better. That’s why I decided to continue my trainings and if possible, train other girls as well.”
Shabnam began working with her cohorts in the camp, and she is now seeing an improvement.
“The girls welcomed my decision,” she said happily. “it’s been awhile since we started our trainings and now we are feeling better.” Shabnam is now training 6 girls in the camp.
Ismael Kaihan, 17, was also a student of Mina’s in Kabul. His father was one of 31 ethnic Hazaras who were kidnapped in February, 2015, by an insurgent group allegedly associated with the Islamic State. Seeing the bad situation, he decided he had to leave the country. Ismael now lives in Sweden, in a refugee camp, while he waits for settlement of his immigration case.
“In Afghanistan, despite it being our country, we were always discriminated against,” he said.
Ismail is also continuing his sports training.
“Sport is as necessary for everyone as eating and drinking,” he said. “All the Afghans in the Swedish camp do sports, even those who only played a sport once in their life are now doing sports and physical activities regularly.”
Mina Asadi is happy that no matter where her students are, they continue their trainings.
“I love all my students and I’m happy that my efforts were effective,” She says proudly.
Afghans who have migrated abroad say they want to prove to the world that the Afghan refugees are just trying to find peace. They want to continue their athletic activities outside the country as well and become champions.
But at this point it is far from clear when they might win their next medals, or which flag may be raised over their heads.