There is something different about Abbas Karimi these days.
The former refugee from Afghanistan was racing with the USA flag on his swim cap at the Madeira 2022 World Para Swimming Championships last week, and a big smile on his face to go with the gold medal he won in the mixed 4x50m medley relay 20pts.
Karimi, who previously competed for the Refugee Paralympic Team, knows that he is one of the lucky ones. As the international community observes World Refugee Day on Monday, 20 June, there are more than 100 million people with stories similar to his who are still living without documents in challenging conditions.
“World Refugee Day is a big day for refugees, especially for disabled people. We’re all equal as human beings and every country should open their doors for refugees and displaced people because they are human too,” said Karimi, who lived with a refugee status for almost 10 years.
“Every refugee should have a home and all the doors should be open for them, to welcome them.”
Karimi was born without arms in Kabul, Afghanistan. He endured a childhood of bullying and at 12 took up kickboxing as a way to defend himself.
However, it was in the water where he found his true sanctuary. Karimi first tried swimming when he was 13 years old, in a 25-metre pool that his brother built near their home, and immediately fell in love with the sport.
As he trained, bombs continued to explode in Kabul and at age 16 Karimi made the difficult decision to leave his family and escape the country. His goal was to find safety and also try to become an elite athlete.
Karimi's journey as a refugee took him through the freezing paths of the Zagros mountains as he crossed through the Islamic Republic of Iran, where he was smuggled in the back of a truck headed to Turkey. Almost suffocating under the plastic and human crowding, Karimi made it into a refugee camp on the other side of the border.
Over the next four years he lived in multiple refugee camps in Turkey, finding ways to train whenever possible.
While Karimi competed and won several medals at the Turkish national championships as a refugee, he was not able to take part in international competitions because he lacked the proper documentation.
In 2016 Karimi was able to move to the United States with the help of a former wrestling coach Mike Ives and a year later he won silver in the men’s 50m butterfly S5 at the Mexico City 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, becoming the first refugee athlete to win a Para world championship medal.
Other competitions followed until Karimi was able to dive into the pool under USA colours for the first time in 2022 and shortly win his first world title as a USA citizen.
“Sport saved my life and sport always kept me positive, and here I am. I made it this far because of the sport,” Karimi said after a race at the World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal.
“This is my third World Championships and I’m so happy. Sport means everything in my life and sport can affect a refugee’s life a lot and it can save your life.”
A voice for refugees
That was the message Karimi also sent out when he was thrust into the spotlight as part of the six-person Refugee Paralympic Team at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, mere days after the Taliban captured Kabul and brought on the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
“It was an honour to represent the Refugee Paralympic Team and to represent millions of refugees. I tried all my best to give them hope,” said Karimi, who was one of his team’s two flagbearers at the Opening Ceremony.
Karimi has also spoken on behalf of refugees as a High Profile Supporter for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency. He was appointed to this role in May 2021.
It was with the help from UNHCR that Karimi was first accepted into the United States as a refugee.
“Being part of the United Nations, it’s an honour for me because the United Nations has done so much for me,” Karimi said. “Being a refugee, that life taught me so much. It gave me a lot of things so it’s time for me to give something back to the refugees and the refugee communities.
“I just want to give something back to the refugee world so I can open doors for them so they can compete at my level.”
And as Karimi thinks of the millions of refugees around the world, 15 million of which also have a disability, there is a message he wants to send directly to them.
“My message to the displaced people around the world is to not give up on themselves,” Karimi said.
“Never be hopeless. Be always hopeful, set goals and achieve them no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. Never quit on yourself and never quit on your dreams and goals.”