The Many Battles of Refugee Olympian Nigara Shaheen

She fled Afghanistan as a baby. Now she’s headed to the Olympics. How she fought her way to to the top.
KATIE UNDERWOOD
JULY 2024_INTERVIEW_NIGARA SHAHEEN_BY WADE HUDSON212_CROP

July 2, 2024

Nigara Shaheen’s road to this year’s Paris Olympics has been more treacherous than most. Born in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 1993, she was just six months old when her parents carried her across the mountainous border into Pakistan, fleeing the country’s raging civil war. In the city of Peshawar, she grew into a fighter, first as part of a rare all-girls karate team and, later, as a champion in judo, a sport she appreciated for its emphasis on intellect over aggression.

Shaheen’s love of judo took her all over: back to Afghanistan, where she endured ambient gunfire and harassment to train and earn her undergraduate degree; to Russia (again, to train, albeit unsuccessfully, during COVID); and, in 2021, to the Olympics. After struggling to find a country that would host her, she competed on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, a group of athletes representing the millions of displaced people around the world. A shoulder injury cost Shaheen a place on the podium, but this summer, she’ll get a second chance.

Thanks to a sports scholarship arranged by the International Olympic Committee, the International Judo Federation, World University Service of Canada and UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, Shaheen, now 30, has been prepping for the Paris Games in Toronto since 2022. She has a new dojo, a new permanent resident card, a new degree from Scarborough’s Centennial College and a renewed desire to medal. She won’t be carrying Canada’s flag but, for now, home is here.

JULY 2024_INTERVIEW_NIGARA SHAHEEN_BY WADE HUDSON211

Your parents fled the civil war in Afghanistan in 1993, when you were a baby. What have they told you about that journey to safety?

After attacks by mujahedeen rebels, my mom left Kabul with the four of us kids. My dad was trapped and hid at his office, but met up with us a day later. We travelled by car to the Pakistani border town of Torkham. From there, we walked through the mountains over two days and two nights. My eldest sister was 13 at that point, and my mom stayed awake all night to make sure no one assaulted us.   

How did your family adjust to this new life in Peshawar?

My family is pretty educated—both of my parents were government workers—but we had little savings. First, we lived in a house with 15 of our relatives, but then my mom started teaching, which allowed us to rent our own place. Pakistan was hot, so I had a lot of rashes and fevers as a baby. My mom showered my skin in cold water, but I ended up developing rheumatism from it. A relative who lived with us back then is always surprised when he sees me now. He’s like, “How did you get so fit?”

Back-to-back-Olympic-bids fit. I guess you have a genetic advantage—you’re not the first person in your family to do martial arts, right? 

My dad grew up wrestling for fun in Kandahar, where it’s quite popular, but he didn’t pursue it professionally. When I was six, he and I used to watch WWE on our tiny TV at seven in the morning. I loved Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. 

Were you a scrappy kid? 

I was a happy kid, always laughing, despite all the difficulties. Harassment was pretty normal in Pakistan. One day, I was coming home from school and an old man yelled at me and pushed me down. My mom said, “You won’t always be able to defend yourself verbally. You need to be physically strong—and you need to take up your own fights.” The only martial arts club in our area was for karate. So I did that.

How did you make the jump to judo?

Within a year, I got my brown belt in karate and joined Peshawar’s first all-female team. At my first tournament, an under-12 in Islamabad, I won all my matches. My coach then suggested I compete in the judo tournament, which was right next to us in the arena. Karate is a more distant sport—you can kick and punch an opponent from further back—whereas judo involves close contact. He said, “Just wrestle! Grab that girl and throw her!” I won, and I loved that feeling so much that I saw a future in it.

Aside from the ability to throw an entire human, what about judo appealed to you? 

On my very first day at the dojo, my coach said, “Keep falling and falling and falling and then you will be a judoka.” It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down in life, as long as you get back up—that’s always stuck in my mind. People also think, “It’s a martial art! It’s aggressive!” If you translate judo to English, it means “the way of softness.” You learn how to use your opponent’s weaknesses against them. 

JULY 2024_INTERVIEW_NIGARA SHAHEEN_BY WADE HUDSON210

Where did your Olympic aspirations come from—especially when you had no idols to emulate in your immediate surroundings?

I’ll be honest: for the longest time I had no idea how the Olympics worked. But then I watched Rohullah Nikpai, a tae kwon do athlete from Afghanistan, win a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. He was a refugee in Iran, so we were from similar situations. In my mind, I was like, Okay, I want to be Afghanistan’s first female Olympian to win a medal. I didn’t have my own room at that point, but I put sticky notes all over: Olympian, Olympian, Olympian, Olympian. I’d draw the Olympic rings on my pictures. Not even in my wildest dreams could I predict I’d be a part of the refugee team. 

You returned to Afghanistan as a young adult to earn your undergraduate degree. There, many women aren’t allowed to leave the house without a male guardian. During your training, you regularly grappled with men. Competing could have cost you your life. Why did you stick with it? 

Because I had a goal.

Trolls were making fake social media accounts, you were followed—many people would have thrown in the towel.

During my first few months in Kabul, I did think, Why me? People online knew the make and model of my car; they photoshopped pictures of me on vacation. It was a lot for an 18-year-old girl to take. At the same time, I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong. My presence challenged ideas of what a girl should be.

What would you say is your biggest advantage in a fight?

I don’t get scared.

I’m going to be real with you: your light-and-bubbly demeanour is throwing me off. How do you make the jump to Scary Nigara when you hit the mat?

If I wake up too relaxed on the day of a competition, I don’t do well. Now, I listen to music—this really good French song by Indila called “Dernière danse.” I also turn off my phone and my Wi-Fi the day before; I hate when people try to talk to me before a fight. I also try to recall the fights I’ve lost. That gets me into scary mode.

You moved to Toronto about a year and a half ago to train here. When you were country-hopping in search of training facilities, you said that Canada was at the top of your list. What about us appealed to you?

My aunt has lived in Canada for 26 years; she and her family have a pretty good life here. Her kids are educated. Because of sports, I’ve met a lot of Canadians. They always said, “You should come visit us.” I had a good impression of Canada, so when UNHCR gave me a list of countries I could apply to, I chose it. Before I came, I did a bit of research on your history. I listened to the national anthem, and I had questions about why some of you speak French. 

What’s your training regimen like leading up to the Paris Games? Strenuous? 

Well, my mornings usually start at 6:30. I work on my technical game by doing 1,000 uchikomis, or throwing exercises, back to back. I get home around nine and teach Afghan schoolkids English online, then I head to my evening training around five. Most times, it’s a Brazilian jiu jitsu class, which is good for my ground work. Then I do an hour and a half more of judo. I get home around 10:15 p.m. Six days a week. 

Your shoulder separated while you were grappling in Tokyo. How are you changing up your tactics this time around?

I used to compete in the minus-70-kilogram weight category, which was not ideal for my height. Now, I’m in minus-63. I’ve lost almost 10 kilograms in the past few months. Also, in Tokyo, my coach spoke Arabic; I don’t know Arabic, so that was a bit of a problem. Now, when my current coach says, “Do this move,” I know what he means.

The Olympics are the world’s largest display of national pride. You’re competing under the refugee flag—not Afghanistan’s or Pakistan’s or Canada’s. Does that alter the experience for you somehow? 

My Olympic dream was to represent Afghanistan, which didn’t come true. I remember during the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, the refugee team was in the front and Afghanistan was behind us. Muna Dahouk, a judoka from Syria, asked, “Nigara, are you okay?” And I said, “Yes, but I cannot look back.” I felt empty. There were my people, wearing our traditional clothes, and I couldn’t be a part of it. At the same time, I am a refugee. I grew up in Pakistan. In that way, the refugee flag represents me more. Carrying it is more of a responsibility. You’re representing the millions of people who have been displaced.

You’re going to be fighting athletes whose home countries are relatively politically stable. They’ve never wanted for food, and some have had their training fully funded. They haven’t contended with the things you have. Do you ever think about that—how the past affects performance?

Of course. When I grew up, my nutrition wasn’t as good. We didn’t have good doctors. That might have affected my body, but it’s not something that affects me mentally. All of that aside, I got to this stage. That keeps me motivated—knowing I’ve walked a harsh path and I’m still here. 

You just gained permanent resident status in Canada. A lot of people are talking about the problems with our immigration system at the moment. How was your experience coming through it?

Different bodies, like the IOC and UNHCR, were involved in me coming here, so it was pretty organized. The only problem was that it took eight months to get my physical PR card, which meant that, for eight months, I couldn’t compete. For an athlete, that was a big setback.

Some refugees are sleeping in the streets. Having been displaced yourself, how do you feel when you see how that situation is being handled?

I will say: it could be better. At the same time, just speaking for myself, coming here meant getting so many opportunities that I’d never had in my life. When I train now, I know I won’t be harassed. There won’t be bombs or guns firing. I’m grateful for that peace. What concerns me with respect to the refugees is integration. I think sports can be a tool for that. 

How so?

If people go to the same gym, train together and they’re in close physical contact, they naturally begin to bond. That’s what happened to me. I know many refugees don’t have the financial means to pay for their kids to join a sports club, especially when they’re struggling to pay for food. But if I get the chance to start my own dojo, I’ll get funding so it’s free for refugees to come.

Between competing, college and living downtown, do you feel like you’ve established a community here? Do you have a coffee shop?

I’m in love with matcha. From Starbucks, an Asian market—any place will work. I made two really good friends during college and I’m friends with my training partners at the dojo. I haven’t had a lot of time to explore the city because of my schedule, but my favourite spot so far is probably the Toronto Islands. I went there once on a Tuesday morning, and it was so calm. I love living near water.

Do you see yourself settling in Canada? Have your parents asked for an invite?

Right now, they’re living with my aunt in Pakistan. I do plan to bring them here, but the pay I make from competing isn’t enough to sponsor them. I want to have a stable job and a car when they come, so they’re not moving with me from one house to another or taking the subway around. At this age, I want them to be relaxed. I want them to have a good life. They’ve done a lot for me.

Will they be in Paris to watch you fight, or will they be watching on TV?

I told my mom that I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to compete at the Olympics after Paris. But they don’t have the visas. 

Has your dad offered you any fighting tips from afar?

He gives me advice, but the things he tells me to do aren’t actually allowed in judo. I humour him anyway and say, “Sure, Dad, I’ll try that. Watch me!”