Zakia Khudadadi: “I win for the women of Afghanistan”

Zakia Khudadadi, who was evacuated from Afghanistan in 2021, pays tribute to her culture and her coach in France after claiming first Para taekwondo gold at the European Para Championships 2023 17 Aug 2023
A female coach celebrates with a female Para taekwondo athlete
Coach Haby Niare, left, and Zakia Khudadadi started working together in March 2022.
ⒸEuropean Para Championships 2023
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

When Zakia Khudadadi won Para taekwondo gold at the European Para Championships  2023 - her first-ever gold medal at an international tournament - her coach Haby Niare was the first to celebrate with her. As Khudadadi wiped her tears with her sleeves, Niare picked the Afghan athlete up and took a victory lap around the mat in an emotional celebration. 

“I’m so happy. For me, the feeling is like a Paralympic medal  because it’s the first gold medal I’ve won. My feeling is like a star,” Khudadadi said.

Khudadadi, who fled Afghanistan in 2021, trains in Paris, France,  where she currently lives. At Rotterdam 2023 she competed as a refugee team athlete, but shared the joy with the French athletes and coaches she spends most of her days with, especially Niare.

Zakia Khudadadi (center) won gold at the European Para Championships and celebrated with French athletes and coaches. @Haby Niare

“Coach Haby is really, really, really kind and she pushes me every day. She tells me, ‘Zakia, you are a champion’. Every day, I feel that positive energy. I am happy together,” she said. 

“She is amazing and a role-model . I am happy because I’m a refugee – I’m not French. She is French and her heart is very big. Refugee or French, she’s been so good to me.”

“I continue Para taekwondo because I love the sport and I win for the women of Afghanistan and for the refugee people."

Happiness and pride 

Rotterdam had a fairytale ending for Khudadadi, who competed in the women’s -47kg division. In the final against Turkey’s Nurcihan Ekinci, she came from behind to equalise with less than a minute of the bout to go before claiming the win during extra time.

Before Khudadadi took to the mat, Niare spotted fear in her eyes.

“I told her, ‘Zakia, look at where you are from. Look at your background – it was hard. Now you have the chance. We work hard. You are perfect. Show us you can do it’.”

Khudadadi won three bouts en route to the gold medal. @European Para Championships 2023

For Niare, a silver medallist in the women’s welterweight class at the Rio 2016 Olympics, it is the first gold medal that one of her athletes has won since she became a coach in March 2022.

“I had to run (on the mat) with her because I know when you have to show happiness. I was very happy and proud of her,” Niare said. “It was another happiness to be a coach and to win a gold medal with another athlete. I know what they feel, I know the joy when you win.”

A confident fighter

After arriving in France, it took some time for Khudadadi to feel confident about competing at the biggest international stage and living in a foreign country.

“She had not much confidence because of her story and that’s normal. At first it was hard to give her confidence,” Niare explained. “Every time she needs to be pushed, push, push, push, like, (I tell her) ‘Let’s go Zakia, you can do it! You can do it! You can do it! See, you did it! You do it very well!’ etc. 

“And every time I do this, she would take more and more and more confidence.”

Khudadadi used to have a French translator with her, but she does not need support from a translator anymore. She was initially hesitant to go out, but now she has friends on the team and enjoys shopping with other athletes.

“She is with us every day. She feels more comfortable with the French language and the culture,” Niare added. “She is very close with other fighters – they are like her big brothers and sisters. Now, she is very good.” 

New goals

Khudadadi left Afghanistan just a week before the postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games took place. Thanks to global support from several individuals, organisations and governments, Khudadadi and Paralympic sprinter Hossain Rasouli were safely evacuated from the Afghan capital Kabul in August 2021.

The two athletes spent a week in Paris at the National Institute of Sport Expertise and Performance (INSEP), the French sports ministry’s high performance training centre, before arriving in Tokyo for the Games. 

Khudadadi competed in the women’s K44 -49kg in Tokyo, becoming Afghanistan’s first female Paralympian since Athens 2004.

Khudadadi competed at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, following her safe evacuation from Afghanistan. @Carl Court/Getty Images

She admits “it’s not easy” being a refugee and thinking about leaving her home country still breaks her heart.

“I left my country, my home, my club, my everything. It was a difficult day for me and to speak about Tokyo, I cry because my heart is in pain. But I didn’t stop after Tokyo – I am strong for everything – for sport, for women of Afghanistan, for refugee people.” 

While she associates her time at Tokyo 2020 with tears and sadness, she said that Rotterdam is a place that made her happy. Now, she wants to find more happiness in Paris – the host of next year’s Paralympic Games, as she competes there at the Grand Prix in September.

“Now I’ve really progressed in the French language and I’m in contact with more people. The French team is a good team and I’m happy,” she said. “I’m ready, I’m ready for my competitions.”