Nigara Shaheen was born in Afghanistan, but moved to Pakistan when she was six months old.
In 1993, her family fled the war in Afghanistan in Jalalabad and crossed the border into Pakistan on foot for two days and two nights.
Eighteen years later, Shaheen decided to study at the Afghanistan American University in Kabul and set foot in this country for the first time since then.
On July 28 this year, Shaheen will make her debut in the Olympic Games in women’s judo, representing the refugee Olympic team in the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
Earlier this month, when the team was training in Doha, the capital of Qatar, when a team official tested positive for the coronavirus, her dream of becoming an Olympian was almost shattered.
“It’s difficult,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “At one time, we thought we might lose the opportunity to compete [at the Games] And speak out for all refugees. But our family overcame it together. “
While in Doha, Al Jazeera told Shahin about her being an Olympian, her love of judo and the obstacles she faced on the road to today’s achievements.
Al Jazeera: What was your reaction when you learned that you would participate in the Olympics?
Shahin: I have always dreamed of participating in the Olympics and I am very committed to achieving my dream, but sometimes I think I will never achieve it, especially during my time in Russia [for a Master’s degree] And all judo clubs are closed due to the coronavirus.
But I remember that on the day the refugee Olympic team was announced, it took me nearly a day to really digest the fact that I was selected.
Al Jazeera: In your journey to your destination, what obstacles did you encounter?
Shahin: I am often harassed and bullied. In Peshawar (Northwest Pakistan, where Shaheen and her family live as refugees) and Kabul, we are afraid and worried about our safety. I have become a target and have received many threats on social media, God knows. There are some Facebook pages created in my name that post information about me.
In Russia, I feel that I am not welcomed by society. I traveled there thinking that I would get support to train judo, but I didn’t get the support I expected.
It’s too difficult, but all this makes me stronger. It’s very difficult, but if it weren’t for all these things, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Al Jazeera: How is the domestic support situation?
Shahin: I’m really fortunate to have great support from my family. I was attacked many times while training with my family, but I was grateful because my parents knew my enthusiasm and always inspired me and stayed with me anyway.
Al Jazeera: How did it grow up in Pakistan?
Shahin: When you are a refugee from another country and are very young, you will feel that you are not integrated into society. As a child growing up in Pakistan, I have a lot of anxiety and life is more difficult than other children around me.
But exercise is indeed my safe haven, not only for my mental health, but also for me to have the opportunity to integrate into society. Judo will always be my love.
— International Olympic Committee Media (@iocmedia) June 8, 2021
Al Jazeera: How did Judo come about in your life?
Shahin: I like martial arts and wrestling. I really like these. I want to join any martial arts club I can join. I started with karate. There are no other clubs in the area where we live, so I have no choice. At the Under-14 Championship in Islamabad, my coach asked me if I wanted to play judo because there were not many female judo players. I agree and wear karate clothes to participate in judo competitions.
As soon as I stepped on that mat, I felt something. I think I have found my passion. At that time, I left karate and started judo.
Al Jazeera: You are visiting Afghanistan again after a lapse of 18 years. How does it feel to return home for the first time?
Shahin: Very emotional. In Peshawar, when I was in school, they would sing Pakistan’s national anthem every morning. I grew up in Peshawar and felt very welcome. Although I have deep respect for this country, during the national anthem, I felt a little broken in my heart.
It is very difficult to come back to Afghanistan, many things are new to me, and I need time to adapt.
In addition, someone asked me why I grew up in Pakistan and why I called myself an Afghan. I also have to face it.
Al Jazeera: To participate in the Olympics, what message can you give young Afghan girls?
Shahin: My existence itself should bring hope to all young Afghan girls dreaming of the Olympics. I met all the obstacles they faced. But if I can do it, so can they. It is difficult, but there is nothing beyond human ability.
Find what you really love and follow it anyway.
Al Jazeera: What will happen after the Olympics?
Shahin: Not ready yet. I will always be associated with sports. It gave me so much. I love judo. In my life’s struggle, sports are my only safe haven and spiritual peace. I want to give back to the sports world. I will find my way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.