Free to Run hosts our first Paralympic Races for 18 female athletes

In July 2019, Free to Run hosted our very first Paralympic Races. Over three days, 18 Paralympic team members traveled from three different provinces to compete in 200 meter, 400 meter, and 800 meter relay races. For 10 of the participants, it was their very first trip to a different province.

Being disabled in Afghanistan is incredibly complicated because there is no state sponsored facilities or benefits for the disabled community. In December 2018, Free to Run started a program specifically for girls with disabilities as a way to increase access to sports and life skills development for one of the most marginalised communities of women in Afghanistan.

When I compare myself now to how I was when I joined the team, I can see lots of changes in my body. I was so tired and bored all the time, but when I joined the wheelchair racing team with Free to Run I started to feel free and happy. Now, I love wheelchair racing,” said Narges from the Northern Afghanistan program.

When the teams arrived in Kabul, Free to Run kicked off the event with a discussion on the challenges each of the team members had faced in their home province. This created a sense of community amongst the girls, who had not realized how widespread the difficulties for people with disabilities in Afghanistan was. “We share the same pain,” said one participant after the discussion. Others chose to focus on the positive experiences that have come into their lives despite their physical limitations. “I’m happy I joined this team. I was really depressed before, but now am much happier with Fee to Run,” said a participant. “To be able to get outside of the house and do sports makes me really happy,” said another.

The teams first competed in a relay to see which province was the fastest and to get comfortable on the new track using the racing wheelchairs. Despite the hot summer day and the lack of shade, the stadium was filled with laughter as the girls settled into competition mode and got to know one another.

It was a dream come true for me to see girls with disabilities show power. Everyone should try their best to achieve their goals! said Rahila from Kabul.

For all of the competitors, it was their first time competing in a race of any kind. “When I joined this team, I thought it would be impossible for me to race. I never even considered winning first position, because I couldn’t even imagine participating. The team and my coach encouraged me to work hard. I know now my problem was self-confidence, because I got first position in one of the races! I am so happy and now my parents look at me as a hero,” said Shokria from our Western Afghanistan program.

The teams did not just change their perceptions within themselves, though. The race was attended by family, community, and government members. The teams interacted with people about their experience while traveling to and from the race as well.

“When we were traveling back home after the race, the police stopped us at a checkpoint and told us to get out. Our driver told the police that we were disabled and unable to just jump out of the car in the street. He asked where we were going, and we told him we were on our way back from a race. They laughed at us and asked how it was possible for people with disabilities to do sports. Then I told the police, ‘We have all participated in a race, look at our medals.’ I showed them my medal, and I could see he was surprised. He did not say anything else and let us go,” said Abtyanos from the Western Afghanistan program.

The teams left with medals and a newfound sense of community. “This race was not just a race for us. It was a connection between 3 provinces where we got to meet each other and compete while building relationships with girls who have similar life situations,” said Rahila from Kabul.

Leah Anathan