From Serbia, Afghan boxers seek refuge, careers in the West

BELGRADE, Serbia – They trained in secret and struggled to get to an international tournament in Europe. Now, members of the Afghan national boxing team are seeking refuge in the West, hoping to continue their careers and lives without danger or fear.

The Afghan boxers, their coach and a senior boxing federation official remained in Serbia after the AIBA world boxing championships ended in early November, saying they could face retaliation from the Taliban if they returned. at their home.

“When the Taliban regime arrived in Afghanistan, everything changed,” said Waheedullah Hameedi, secretary general of the Afghan boxing federation. “It was difficult to come for a world championship under the new regime, the new government.”

The team contacted several foreign embassies to obtain humanitarian visas and asylum protection. Some countries in the European Union refused them, but the group of 11 members did not give up hope of finding refuge.

Tens of thousands of Afghans, including athletes, have fled the country since troops from the United States and other foreign countries withdrew in August and the Taliban took over. Hameedi said the Taliban did not approve of boxing and that team members were unlikely to freely pursue their careers in Afghanistan.

“As you know, the situation in Afghanistan is very difficult, very bad,” he said, speaking in English. “They (the Taliban) did not allow in the early days to continue boxing and open the gymnasium. Everyone was afraid to go anywhere for boxing or whatever.

Hameedi’s father, former secretary general of the Afghan Boxing Federation, was shot dead in 2019 by unknown assailants. Following the national team’s participation in the Asian Boxing Championships in Dubai in May, Hameedi was determined to take his boxers to Serbia for the World Championships in late October.

Boxing was banned in Afghanistan during the previous Taliban rule in 1996-2001. As its leaders sought to portray themselves as more tolerant this time around, Hameedi insisted officials and boxers had faced threats and feared for their safety.

“Boxing is ‘haram’ for them (the Taliban), something in Islam that is illegal for them,” he said.

Before the trip to Serbia, the boxers trained in hidden places and tried to stay under the radar, hiding their plans to participate in the international tournament, Hameedi said. They were successful in obtaining visas to travel to Iran, and once in Tehran, they applied for visas from the Serbian embassy before rushing to Belgrade, he said.

The 11 Afghan boxers competed in Serbia as part of a 14-member “fair luck” team sponsored by the International Boxing Association for refugees and other athletes who had to flee their country, Hameedi said .

The group’s Serbian visas have since expired. Hameedi said friends and relatives warned them not to return to Afghanistan. As thousands of migrants and refugees arrive in Serbia, most plan to continue to countries in Western Europe where it is easier to find jobs and earn a living.

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“We hope that we will receive the visas as soon as possible so that there is no problem in Serbia,” Hameedi said. We can easily go to a safe country and their future will be granted. “

Hameedi said he, the trainer and the nine boxers who are still with them in Serbia do not want to cross borders illegally to reach Western Europe, but they also did not seek asylum in the nation of Balkans.

Lawyer Marko Stambuk, who works with the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, said the Afghan boxers had contacted the organization and had been informed of their options to seek asylum in Serbia.

Stambuk admitted that the boxers fear a return to Afghanistan due to Taliban policies and a generally volatile situation. They are “aware of their rights and obligations (in Serbia), and now they are thinking about what to do next,” he said.

Amid the uncertainty, boxers continued to train at local gyms. Hasibullah Malikzadah, 20, said he was afraid to return to Afghanistan and wanted to continue boxing elsewhere.

“I want to be a good champion” and a role model for children around the world, he said after a training session. “I really want it. I really have a good dream.

By JOVANA GEC Associated Press


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