As an Afghan Paralympian, sport has given me opportunities that all people with disabilities deserve | Abbas Karimi

In most cases, the birth of a child is a celebration. This is a time to rejoice in the excitement of what this child will be or could become – this child is a gift. But when I was born, my family cried. They were crying with grief and they were crying with fear. Because those, like me, born with a disability are not seen as gifted or special, they are seen as different. In many parts of the world, difference is not seen as a good thing: it can even be dangerous.

I was born in Afghanistan unarmed. As a child, while my family supported me, the world around me did not. I was seven years old when this realization hit me – my life was going to be different. I was bullied at school and felt inferior. It wasn’t until I discovered swimming that I finally felt accepted. Water made me feel safe, and swimming made me feel alive; it also made me realize that even with my disability, I had a gift. It was then that I embarked on a journey that would break down barriers and show others that people with disabilities can be active and reach their potential.

At 16, those goals were challenged when I left Afghanistan. While I felt safe in the water, I felt unsafe in my country and needed to leave. At that time, I became one of the most 12 million people with disabilities forcibly displaced worldwide by persecution, violence and human rights violations.

Abbas Karimi swimming
Abbas Karimi training ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photography: Michael Reaves/Getty Images for UNHCR

As a person with a disability, my journey to safety was going to be particularly difficult. I knew and understood that people with disabilities could be at increased risk of discrimination, exploitation and violence, and face many obstacles to access to humanitarian aid. Although the trip was tough, it was the swimming that kept me going. At each point and in each refugee camp, I found a swimming pool. And each time it reminded me of feelings of value, acceptance and respect.

Last year, I participated in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games as a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Refugee Paralympic Team. The obstacles I overcame to achieve this are for many unimaginable; it was an opportunity for me to represent and advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities – 15% of the world’s population.

I felt the power and importance of representation. It was time for the world to see what people with disabilities – including refugees – can achieve when given the right opportunities.

I was comforted only last month World Disability Summit more than 1,300 commitments were made to people with disabilities; promises and efforts to improve the way people like me are included in education, health, social protection and livelihoods.

With the summit and the Paralympic Winter Games due to open in Beijing on March 4, there’s no denying that we’ve made progress. But we still have a long way to go. Until our rights are fully respected and protected in an inclusive society, people with disabilities will not have the same opportunities to contribute and progress.

My family believed in me, but if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

It’s time we lived in a world where when a person with a disability is born, their family cries tears of happiness and excitement for the opportunities they will have and the people they could become. The most important commitment the world can make is to respect and accept people with disabilities.