Fighting for Her Dreams: Female Afghan Judoka Builds a New Life In Canada

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Nigara Shaheen © UNHCR/Cole Burston

By Levon Sevunts

Nigara Shaheen was only an infant when her parents were forced to flee Afghanistan to escape a ravaging civil war in 1994.

In complete secrecy, they trekked through dangerous mountain backroads before reaching safety in neighbouring Pakistan.

“They walked for two days and two nights. I was six months old, so I don’t know what they went through, but I know that it must have been really hard,” says Nigara, speaking from her room in Scarborough.

In Search of Opportunity

The 30-year-old Olympian judo wrestler knows a thing or two about tackling adversity.

Growing up in Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, Nigara watched her parents struggle to adapt to their lives as refugees. They worked hard to provide for their family and give back to the community.

“My mom is a feminist, she’s an activist, and from that time, she worked for the next generation of Afghanistan, trying to empower women, especially girls,” says Nigara. “My dad used to write articles for different websites so that we would have a source of income to study.”

Nigara’s parents wanted her and her siblings to get a university education, but the family couldn’t afford the tuition fees in Pakistan. Meanwhile, monumental changes had taken place in Afghanistan, offering new educational opportunities.

Nigara applied for a merit-based academic scholarship offered by the U.S. embassy in Kabul to study at the American University of Afghanistan.

Almost 18 years after she was whisked out of Afghanistan, Nigara and her family returned to their homeland to begin the next chapter of their lives.

There were no other women judo wrestlers at her gym, making it extremely challenging to train properly. In a society where women and men are not supposed to mingle freely, let alone wrestle together, Nigara also faced constant harangues.

Her parents took turns escorting her to training practices twice a day, but they were powerless to stop the bullying and harassment Nigara faced online.

“I was bullied and cyberbullied,” Nigara says. “Even my close relatives criticized my mom, ‘How are you going to a gym and watching your daughter wrestling with men?’”

nigara shaheen
Nigara Shaheen, an Afghani refugee in Toronto, Canada. © UNHCR/Cole Burston

A New Start

After graduating from the American University of Afghanistan, Nigara began working at the Afghan Ministry of Finance but had to resign from her position to participate in the 2017 Asian Judo Championships held in Hong Kong.

Nigara also wanted to continue her education and get a master’s degree, so she started looking for scholarship opportunities worldwide.

Eventually, she landed a scholarship for a master’s degree in international trade from the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

But Nigara soon discovered that being an outsider meant she couldn’t access the same training and resources.

“Things were not how I expected… the gym I went to was not so welcoming,” she says.

Nigara wasn’t about to tap out, though. She kept showing up at the gym every day despite not feeling welcome. Eventually, she competed in three major competitions.

“I didn’t have the proper judo uniform to compete, I didn’t even have a back number, and I was totally alone,” Nigara says. “[Once], I had to lose five kilos within two weeks. You know, the only way for me to do so, I starved myself. I needed to compete no matter how bad it was.”

A Dream Come True

Nigara’s perseverance and athletic ability caught the eye of the International Judo Federation (IJF).

Nicolas Messner, director of media and Judo for Peace program at the IJF, says when they learned about Nigara’s situation, the organization was building its refugee team and decided to include her.

Then, in early 2021, Nigara got an email from IJF informing her that she had been chosen to be part of the Tokyo Olympic Refugee Team.

With pandemic restrictions still limiting access to training, Nigara had turned her tiny student dorm room into an improvised gym, using water bottles for weights.

“I felt proud because, from that small space, I got to the Olympics,” Nigara says.

Nigara’s Olympic debut in Tokyo was cut short by a severe shoulder injury in Japan that required surgery.

But darker clouds were gathering over her at home. Her family was forced to flee once again to Pakistan because of growing insecurity in Afghanistan.

Nigara’s participation in the Olympics also made big headlines in Pakistan. Pictures of Nigara wrestling without wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf had caused uproar in her conservative neighbourhood.

Nigara’s mother warned her not to tell anyone that she was returning to Pakistan.

“The only time I went out in Pakistan was at night. I was afraid,” Nigara recalls.

© UNHCR/Cole Burston

Unable to work, study, or train and constantly worried for her security, Nigara reached out for help from the Olympic Refuge Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

With their help, Nigara found a pathway to Canada through the World University Service of Canada program.

In August of 2023, she graduated with honours from Centennial College with a post-graduate degree in International Development. In her spare time, Nigara volunteers online with young women and girls in Afghanistan, teaching them English and judo.

“For now, I’m really focusing on Paris 2024. I want to qualify for the Olympics and do well in Paris,” Nigara says. “I want to help refugees through sports because when I was a refugee, it was like a safe haven for me. It helped me to find myself.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization and part of the broader UN System dedicated to providing lifesaving aid, protecting rights, and building a better future for the millions of people forced to flee their homes.

Refugees Are Good for Canada

Despite arriving in Canada with minimal financial resources and facing the challenges of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, refugees actively seize the opportunity to build better lives and become vital contributors to Canada’s economy and cultural diversity.

By the numbers:

  • Tax Contribution: Canada’s investment in refugees pays off. After 20 years in Canada, refugees contribute more to Canada in income tax—not counting all other taxes they pay—than they receive in public benefits and services.
  • Aging Population: With an average age of 11.1 years younger than those born in Canada, refugees contribute to revitalizing the labour force by entering the workforce early and helping to address the challenges of an aging population.
  • Education: Refugee children perform on par with Canadian-born children in school, with higher completion rates for high school, college, university, and graduate degrees, making significant contributions to Canada.
    Entrepreneurship: Refugees are more entrepreneurial than those born in Canada, with 14.4% being self-employed or business owners, actively creating jobs for themselves and fellow Canadians.

For more information, please visit unhcr.ca/refugeesincanada

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