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February 17, 2023 2:57 pm

Judo Team of Iranian, Afghani Refugees Compete in 2023 Tel Aviv Grand Slam Competition


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Crowds cheering at a judo competition in Tel Aviv. Photo: Screenshot

Judokas from Iran and Afghanistan who fled their home countries landed in Israel this week to compete in the 2023 Tel Aviv Grand Slam competition as part of the International Judo Federation refugee team.

“We are happy to come to Israel and compete like everyone else in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam,” members of the IJF refugee team said, according to Israel Hayom.

The team includes 26-year-old Iranian judoka Mohammad Rashnonzahad, who fled to the Netherlands in 2017 and competes in the under 60 kg category, and 23-year-old Majid Kaban, who competes in the under 66 kg weight category. Kaban left Iran three years ago and now lives and trains in Scotland. Both athletes arrived in Israel on Tuesday night with their coach Vahid Sarlak, an Iranian former judo champion himself who was once told by his coach to forfeit a match to avoid going head-to-head with a competitor from Israel. Both Kaban and  Rashnonzahad were eliminated on Thursday in the first round of the Tel Aviv Grand Slam.

Iran has a history of banning athletes from competing against Israel in international tournaments. 

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Also part of the IJF refugee team is Afghani judoka Nigara Shaheen, who competes in the under 70 kg category. Wanting to escape Taliban rule, Shaheen’s family fled Afghanistan when she was six months old and moved to Pakistan, Israel Hayom reported. The judoka, who now lives in Canada, previously took part in the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, as part of the International Olympic Committee’s world refugee team. Shaheen landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and her participation in the Tel Aviv Grand Slam reportedly made her the first Afghan athlete to ever compete in Israel. She lost in the first round of the competition to Katie-Jemima Yeats-Brown from Great Britain.

Israel and Afghanistan have no diplomatic relations and the latter country has never formally recognized the Jewish state. 

“I am happy to compete in Israel,” Shaheen told Israel Hayom ahead of the competition, adding that her favorite athlete is in fact Israeli — Olympic bronze medalist Jordan Jarbi.

The team of refugees arrived in Tel Aviv this week after initially having difficulty obtained visas to enter Israel, Israel Hayom reported. They were eventually granted permission with help from Moshe Ponte, president of the Israel Judo Association, who put pressure on government officials from the Population and Immigration Authority with assistance from Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar. Ponte also greeted the Iranian judokas when they arrived at Ben Guion International Airport on Tuesday.

“It always takes me a long time to get a visa for the competitions, and this time too it came at the very last minute,” said Shaheen. “I missed a lot of events because of this. I’m glad that the Israeli authorities supported the refugee athletes and let me come. I hope that my presence in Israel will convey a message of solidarity between all the athletes. We are ambassadors of peace and come to engage in sports.”

When asked by Israel Hayom if she thinks one day Israeli athletes will be allowed to compete in Afghanistan, she replied: “I’m sure of it. We are part of the sports community, and we know no borders. One day I hope to welcome the athletes from Israel in Afghanistan. I started the first connection between the nations, and I hope I won’t be the only athlete competing in Israel.”

“I hope that in the future the athletes will compete without borders, because sports have no borders,” she added.

The Tel Aviv Grand Slam will run from Feb. 16-18. A total of 398 athletes from 52 countries are competing in the tournament.

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