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BEYOND LOCAL: Toronto judo athlete Nigara Shaheen named to Olympic refugee team for Paris

She's among 36 athletes from 11 countries chosen to compete in Paris this summer under the acronym EOR (Equipe Olympique des Refugies) and under their own flag featuring a heart surrounded by arrows to symbolize finding their way home
Nigara Shaheen is shown during her judo training at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto on Jan. 19, 2023. Shaheen has been named to the Olympic refugee team for the Paris Games.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-UNHCR/Cole Burston **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Nigara Shaheen finally feels the freedom to fully prepare for an Olympic Games.

The 30-year-old Afghan judoka, who has been living and training in Toronto for a year and a half, was named to the International Olympic Committee's refugee team Thursday.

She's among 36 athletes from 11 countries chosen to compete in Paris this summer under the acronym EOR (Equipe Olympique des Refugies) and under their own flag featuring a heart surrounded by arrows to symbolize finding their way home.

"I love the things that I can do through judo," Shaheen said Thursday.

The 2024 Olympic Games open July 26 and close Aug. 11. The IOC entered refugee teams in Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021 to represent displaced people in the world.

Shaheen competed in Tokyo after struggling to find a country that accepted her as an athlete. She moved to Toronto in 2022 to train and attend Centennial College.

"When my name came for the second time, I felt like 'OK, all my struggles and all the hard work that I put into this sport, that I put into this team, it has paid off," Shaheen said Thursday.

"At the same time, I felt responsible because I know that I'm not representing one country or one flag, I'm representing millions of people around the world.

"The difference is, last time, it was during the pandemic and I didn't have a lot of good opportunities or facilities to train better for the tournament. This time, fortunately, I'm in Canada.

"I have better opportunities and training every day, two or three times. For Paris, I'm better prepared."

Shaheen had her Olympic debut in Tokyo cut short by a shoulder injury. She underwent surgery in Japan.

Shaheen grew up in Pakistan and discovered judo at age 11. She returned to Afghanistan at age 18 to a country that frowned upon women mixing with men in combat sports.

Pictures of her grappling in Tokyo in the women's 70-kilogram class without a head scarf made her and her family, who had by then returned to Pakistan, the target of threats and harassment.

"The media and all the attention I got from participating in the Olympics, it was good because I had a platform to spread the message. I had a platform to inspire other refugees if I could," Shaheen said.

"At the same time, I also got a lot of negative comments and negative feedback from my representation in the Olympics. It was not safe for me to continue living in Pakistan and at the same time I could not go back to Afghanistan.

"Deep down, I knew that I was right. I was not doing something wrong. That's really important for a person and athlete, anyone, to know yourself and know that whatever you're doing, it's right according to you. You shouldn't base it according to what people take off you. I knew that what I was doing was right and correct — and I can achieve bigger things. That's what kept me going."

The IOC, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Judo Federation stepped in to help her.

"They gave me options and Canada was on top of my list because I knew I can train there and I can contribute to Canadian society," Shaheen said.

She completed postgraduate studies in international development at Centennial last year. Shaheen initially trained at the Pan Am Sports Centre, but has since switched to a Toronto dojo that offers more training partners.

She's among seven athletes the Canadian Olympic Committee hosts under the IOC's refugee athletes scholarship program. Iranian karate athlete Hamoon Derafshipour, who lives in Kitchener, Ont., was a refugee team athlete in Tokyo.

"An Olympian who stands up for what she believes in, Shaheen is also a determined and impressive advocate for women’s rights," COC president Tricia Smith said Thursday in a statement.

"Her inspiring journey from Afghanistan to Canada gives hope to others and is a testament to resilience and the transformative power of sport."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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