Wheelchair athletes in Kabul, Afghanistan, arrive in Iran

Written by Staff Writer Susan Candiotti Susan Candiotti is a CNN The first Rube Goldberg-like contraption was a rolling sandbag with a handballer, a wheelchair-using athlete, a representative of Afghanistan’s wheelchair rugby team and…

Wheelchair athletes in Kabul, Afghanistan, arrive in Iran

Written by Staff Writer Susan Candiotti

Susan Candiotti is a CNN

The first Rube Goldberg-like contraption was a rolling sandbag with a handballer, a wheelchair-using athlete, a representative of Afghanistan’s wheelchair rugby team and other wheelchairs traveling in a passenger van through Kabul’s streets on April 13, 2015.

They were part of an experimental team of athletes, officials and family members who had managed to flee to Iran for a three-month stay in January and February 2015, hoping to emulate famed amputee ice skater Nancy Kerrigan and her team at a notorious 2002 US Olympic training center in Germany.

Yet the attack on the US compound killed Kerrigan’s coach, a policeman and her bouncer and left her with two broken legs and other serious injuries.

Unable to appear at the Winter Games that followed, Kerrigan and her teammates have remained out of the spotlight and now have their own foundation and foundation funds for athletes.

But the families of team members still in Kabul are not expected to return home until the end of this year, after battling more than three years of uncertainty and the extremely restricted-use of wheelchairs in their native country.

After fleeing the Taliban’s firebombing in Kabul in February 2006, Sabri Khan, a wheelchair athlete who used to practice in Kabul and has three disabled children, lived in Switzerland for four years while his wife and four children made the same journey to Iran.

Matar, the wheelchair rugby player, stayed in the Netherlands, where he is studying IT and has young children. The coach’s son has also been a patient at the Kabul Military Hospital.

“We went to Iranian to escape the Taliban. I said, ‘We are going to die in Kabul because of the Taliban. Who are we?’,” Sabri Khan told CNN in his home in Aarhus, Denmark.

Their journey was complicated by the fact that many teammates had been orphans raised by their mothers and sisters.

“We lost the match, but it was still a victory for all of us that we can make the journey to Iran and reunite with our families,” Sabri Khan said.

It cost them $7,000 in travel expenses. Unable to get asylum in Iran, a handful of teammates went into the arms of the men and women of the international wheelchair rugby team in Tehran and negotiated a migration deal with officials.

After arriving at the airport, they were rushed to the gym where coach Hussein Naseri said they could learn wheelchair soccer and other sports.

“It was a ragtag group,” Naseri told CNN. “So we put everything we had into this.”

Six months later, the Kabul military hospital transported Sabri Khan and the team to the May 11 competition in Iran. They were helped along by the Islamic Revolution Party of Iran, whose government at the time had shifted its refugee policy, allowing a large number of Afghans in, said Safiyal Ansari, who represents the wheelchair rugby team in international tournaments.

They lost to a team from nearby Kerman, where the United Nations refugee agency says the population is down to 600 people after decades of conflict. The Kabul team, however, would have beaten them.

They ended the competition with credit to Dan Ganduoka, the legendary wheelchair coach of the USA team, who helped them navigate the tournament’s rules for wheelchairs.

“I remember when I was at the games, people were very happy because we achieved the first win in the games by our team members who came from Afghanistan,” Sabri Khan said.

“There were many journalists, including from America, which is very nice.”

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