Afghan refugee refuses to give up on Olympic dream

Alpine skier Sajjad Husaini is from the snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan, an ideal setting for his passion. He wants to be the first person from his country to compete at a Winter Olympics, but the Taliban’s return to power last year has forced him to prioritize survival over sport, for now.

"I wanted to represent Afghanistan, to show the beauty of my country to the world," Husaini tells NHK from Germany, where he lives as a refugee with his wife and two sons. "Not the Taliban, not Al-Qaeda, not ISIS, not explosions. I wanted to convey a positive image through my achievements."

Husaini with a snow mountain
Husaini is known as a pioneer in Afghanistan, where few people know how to ski. He started skiing after a foreigner taught him the sport over 10 years ago.

Husaini is a competitive slalom skier who narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea. He quickly started focusing on getting to Beijing, but suddenly, everything changed.

Last year, as US pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban swiftly regained control. The implications were especially serious for Husaini. The 30-year-old and his family belong to the Hazara ethnic minority group, which has routinely been subjected to violent persecution. Fearing he would be a prominent target, he decided they must get out.

Husaini now finds himself starting from scratch in a foreign land, but this is not the first time. From the 1990s, he spent 13 years as a refugee in Iran, before eventually returning to Bamiyan and building a home.

Life was good. He would spend hours hiking up the terrain around his hometown, Bamiyan, then take just minutes to glide back down. He worked as a guide for international visitors and also taught local children how to ski. That included both boys and girls – unthinkable under the ultra-conservative rule of the Taliban toppled just years before.

The upheaval this time comes with an added sense of responsibility. "The Taliban could have found and killed me. I thought about my children’s future," he says.

Husaini and his family’s evacuation
Husaini managed to evacuate on an Italian military aircraft when the Taliban retook power. He says he couldn’t stop crying.

They fled with very few possessions, but Husaini refused to abandon a treasured backpack he received as a special guest at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games.

In many ways, it’s a reminder to keep on believing. Husaini says he wants to not only ski at an Olympics, but help other Afghans get there, too. "If we have the chance to train, and if we gain enough support, we can try, however hard that may be."

He recalls the Beijing Summer Games in 2008, when taekwondo athlete Rohullah Nikpai – who also belongs to the Hazara group – won Afghanistan’s first ever Olympic medal. Husaini wants to emulate Nikpai, whose podium finish saw people in the country celebrate as one, regardless of ethnicity.

Husaini on interview
Husaini believes an Afghan competing at the Winter Olympics would unite people back home. "Pashtun, Hazara and Tajik… It would just bring them together."

For now, he keeps himself fit whenever possible. And, he knows he’s not the only one with the odds stacked against him.

"Regardless of whether they fled or stayed, all Afghan athletes are struggling. We can’t train well, or even think about sport. I hope the rest of the world, including members of the International Olympic Committee, somehow find a way to support us."

Watch video: 03:47