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Afghan-born champion brings hope to refugees stranded in Indonesia through karate

JAKARTA: Meena Asadi fought against overwhelming odds to pursue her dream of becoming a professional karate athlete.

She was 13 and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan when she first decided to learn the martial art. After fleeing violence in Afghanistan with her family, Asadi was driven to break down gender barriers in sport.

“When I saw boys playing sports freely, I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this?'” Asadi told Arab News in an interview. “It motivated me to start karate professionally.”

Asadi’s passion for karate has guided her life journey ever since, even more than a decade later, in Cisarua, a town in West Java south of Jakarta, where she now teaches the art to other refugees. .

Asadi returned to Afghanistan in 2011 but had to leave the country again due to violence and war. She arrived in Indonesia in 2015, where she lived for years under growing uncertainty about the future.

“In Indonesia, refugees live without even the most basic human rights. We consider ourselves forgotten,” Asadi said. “We all suffer from depression and psychological damage.”

Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and serves primarily as a transit country, hosts more than 13,000 refugees, many of whom have languished in the archipelago for years awaiting be resettled in a third country.

As refugees in the Southeast Asian country find themselves further trapped in uncertainty, without the right to work and with limited access to education, Asadi uses karate to help them reduce their anxiety and find hope again.

“Karate helps them to be strong physically and mentally. When they wear a karate uniform, they forget they are homeless,” she said.

“That’s how their stress goes down and they become optimistic.”

Asadi, who is a black belt in karate, won three silver medals at the 2010 South Asian Games.

She founded the Cisarua Refugee Shotokan Karate Club in 2016 and now trains 40 students three times a week for two hours per session. His youngest student is 7 years old, while his eldest is in his fifties. They are refugees from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan. More than half are girls.

The club in Indonesia, which the 29-year-old supports through local and foreign donations, was not her first, as she started one in Afghanistan shortly after returning to Kabul as an adult.

“You can just imagine being the only girl who coaches karate in Afghanistan; people don’t want you to play sports,” she said.

“If a girl opens a karate club for boys and girls, she will find many enemies, which I faced. That’s why I escaped and came here – to save my life.

Throughout her life, Asadi faced many obstacles in pursuit of her karate dreams, from family members who did not believe in her to the ongoing violence in her home country.

While grateful for the hospitality she received from Indonesia, Asadi said refugees in the transit country are akin to prisoners.

“We are prisoners here. Our crime is to have escaped the violence and to have survived. We have been living without basic human rights for years,” Asadi said.

As the world marks World Refugee Day on Monday, Asadi hopes resettlement is in the near future for her and her community.

“The world must open its doors to the refugees trapped in Indonesia,” she said. “They should be resettled as soon as possible because the refugees are talented and skilled people.”

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