“Special Olympics is everywhere, even in places hit by war or a natural disaster. We rise to the challenge and continue reaching out to the intellectually disabled people who are most in need and offering them Special Olympics message of hope.” This is what Simon Koh, Director of Operations for Special Olympics Asia Pacific, says about Special Olympics Afghanistan. “Much of Afghanistan society is at the village level, and the staff and volunteers of Special Olympics Afghanistan are going house to house, finding and helping people with intellectual disabilities,” said Mr. Koh. People with intellectual disabilities (ID) face challenges every day but in a country torn by war, success is even harder to achieve. Afghanistan is one of those countries. Here, people worry about just staying alive in some areas. Yet Special Olympics Afghanistan has been able to change lives and minds anyway. “Each time an athlete competes abroad, it opens up their story [to Afghan society]. They return home as heroes and there is a new respect for them,” says Mr. Koh.
" Special Olympics is everywhere, whether there is a war or not"
At the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin in 2003, twelve Special Olympics Afghanistan athletes were the first Afghan athletes to compete internationally since 1996. Since then, tragedy has struck Special Olympics Afghanistan many times. In 2012 the National Sports Director was attacked and hospitalized, and an athlete lost ten members of his family members when a bomb went off in Kabul. But Special Olympics Afghanistan has continued to grow and expand to new areas despite these challenges, thanks in part to Christmas Records Grants. Because of aid from a Christmas Records Grant in 2013, Special Olympics Afghanistan’s floor hockey team competed and won a silver medal at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Their medal received a lot of media attention in Afghanistan, which helped Afghanis realize that people with ID have many abilities.
Special Olympics Afghanistan athlete Fazil Rabi saw this happen in his own family. Fazil’s older brothers did not want him to join Special Olympics because they thought he would be “useless” as an athlete. And they wanted him to continue helping the family earn money by picking up old newspaper and discarded carton boxes on the street. But Special Olympics helped him earn money while also training and he was able to go to the Games in Idaho in 2009. Seeing him compete for his country and earn a silver medal, his brothers said they were wrong—he is a hero.
It is also hard for Special Olympics Afghanistan to get outside funding to develop their programs. The Program did not think they would be able to hold a National Summer Games in 2012 because they didn’t have enough money. John Langford, a Canadian trainer in the Afghanistan National Police Force in Kabul, heard this and took it upon himself to raise $5,582 via a Canada Day charity hockey game. More than 200 athletes competed at the National Games he helped fund.
Special Olympics Afghanistan now has more than 2,500 athletes and 158 coaches thanks in large part to the $350,000 in Christmas Records Grants that the Program has received since 2005. The opportunities the Grants give Special Olympics Afghanistan athletes are priceless in a war-torn country. “You see people caring for each other, and it takes away from the killings,” said Mr. Koh.