One of the most remarkable performers at the US Paralympic Trials wasn’t even eligible for a spot on Team USA. Mohammad Abbas Karimi, a bilateral arm amputee from Afghanistan, earned a spot on the International Refugee Paralympic Team as a swimmer.
Cosponsored by the International Paralympic Committee and the United Nations Refugee Agency, the six-member team represents the 82 million people around the world who have been displaced by war, persecution, and human rights abuses. An estimated 12 million of the world’s refugees have disabilities, many of them acquired in war or campaigns of violence against civilians.
Karimi has a congenital disability, having been born without arms. He faced relentless bullying during childhood and took up kickboxing as a means to defend himself and channel his anger. At age 13 he took up swimming, and he immediately excelled at it. By his mid-teens he was a national champion in the sport.
“Swimming calms me down,” Karimi said in a recent article at paralympic.org. “If I’m upset or anytime that I have any issues, I just get in the water and it relaxes me. Swimming saved my life. I believe without swimming, I’d be a very dangerous person.”
Karimi has lived with danger his entire life, as his Hazara tribe has continuously been stalked by the Taliban. In 2013 he and an older brother escaped to Turkey, barely surviving a hazardous journey on foot through Iran. He spent four years in Turkish refugee camps, where he managed to continue swimming. By 2016 Karimi was a two-time national champion in Turkish paraswimming, but as a stateless person he was ineligible to compete at the Rio Games.
He finally made his international debut in 2017, after being granted refugee status and relocating to the United States. In his first event on the world stage, Karimi won a silver medal in the 50 meter butterfly in the S5 classification. Now based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he’ll swim the same event in Tokyo and is determined to make the podium, not only for himself but for all the people around the world who’ve been forced by violence to flee their homes.
“When I make the podium, I’m going to make a lot of refugees around the world happy,” Karimi told paralympic.org. “I feel like I’m a lion, someone who always fights hard and never gives up no matter what.”