A young Asif Sultani training with friends at home in his backyard dojo
A young Asif Sultani (centre) training with friends at home in his backyard dojo

“We were stopped by thieves and they robbed us of the only belongings we had while pointing guns at us. I was only seven and I was terrified.”

Asif Sultani can’t remember much of the journey as he and his Hazara family fled a war-torn Afghanistan to escape persecution, but some memories are still ingrained.

When they arrived in Iran as asylum seekers, it didn’t feel like much of a refuge.

“We faced discrimination for being undocumented,” Sultani told BBC Sport.

“I remember I used to get bullied a lot. People used to punch me, kick me, spit on me and humiliate me – and make me beg for mercy.”

Encouraged by his father, he turned to martial arts as a means to protect himself, and is now bidding to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in karate for Team Refugee.

Barred from the local dojo because of his undocumented status, Sultani established a training gym in his backyard.

“I was heartbroken, because karate was the only thing I had in my life,” he said.

“I started gathering a few of my friends together just to try and train, watching Bruce Lee’s movie and pretending to be like him.

“It wasn’t a fancy spot to train but what we had was courage, hope and a dream.”

That dream was almost crushed when, aged 16, he was deported back to Afghanistan and forced to stay in a small hotel room in fear of his life.

“Seeing people walking in the street, carrying large guns – I was terrified because the Hazara [community] has been persecuted in Afghanistan for so many years,” Sultani said.

Sultani felt as though he only had one choice.

A few weeks later he joined more than one hundred people on a small, cramped boat heading for Australia via Indonesia.

But the traumatic journey saw the group stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat engine failed.

“Everyone was crying, praying, and preparing to jump in the water. It was like a nightmare,” Sultani said.

Despite spending hours in the water, the group were able to make it to land.

Sultani training in Australia
Sultani training in Australia

Sultani spent much of his teenage years in detention centres, but at 18 he was able to enrol in high school in Australia, followed by twice-daily karate training sessions.

Team Refugee made their Olympic debut at Rio 2016 and, as an International Olympic Council Refugee Scholarship holder, Sultani will find out whether he has made the team for Tokyo in June.

“I’m not going there to win a gold medal,” he said.

“As refugees we did not choose our life. We did not choose to be persecuted, to be separated from our family and to leave our homeland.

“I would like to be that person that sends a message of hope to millions of other children that have been displaced around the world. I see myself in every single one of them.”

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