Afghan boxing champion teaches Kenyan camp refugees to punch above their weight

Omidulla Alizadah, who fled persecution in his home country, aims to train young fighters to compete on international stage

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Kenya's sprawling Kukuma refugee camp is the most unexpected place to find a group of young boys engaging in an intense regime of the French kickboxing sport savate – perfecting their kicks, jabs and counterpunches.

But having coach Omidulla Alizadah, an Afghan refugee and former national boxing champion, diligently training them every week, they are all punching above their weight.

Alizadah has been languishing in one the world’s largest refugee camps in north-west Kenya since 2019, while seeking asylum in Europe.

There are no jobs here. We are totally dependent on food rations
Omidulla Alizadah

Despite the hardships and uncertainties of life as a refugee, the 26-year-old has refused to let his boxing dreams die.

His mission is to form a refugee boxing team for boys aged above 12 from countries across sub-Saharan Africa, and compete on the international stage.

Alizadah told The National that he is not just training the refugee children in boxing but also teaching them how to dream.

“Boxing gives them hope. They are learning to fight all odds to learn a new skill,” he said.

From champ to refugee

Alizadah's journey from an Afghan boxing champ to a refugee is one filled with suffering and broken dreams.

“Martial arts has always been my passion,” said Alizadah. “I started learning Taekwondo from the age of 13 and I am a black belt. I'm also a certified coach for Afghanistan's national team.”

He eventually turned to savate boxing and was a member of the Savate Boxing National team between 2017 and 2019.

Alizadah won several medals – including the Best of the Best Fighter Champion Savate in Afghanistan in 2018.

But Alizadah said he faced persecution and discrimination in Afghanistan for belonging to the marginalised Hazara community.

“I had no choice,” he said, on the circumstances that forced him to flee Afghanistan that was besieged by conflict and economic turmoil back in 2019.

Omidulla posing with his medals after crowned Best of the Best Fighter Champion Savate in Afghanistan in 2018. Photo: Omidulla Alizadah

“My life was in danger. I was a victim of targeted attacks by unidentified groups in 2015 and 2018. I was stabbed in the abdomen and sustained severe injuries. I felt like I didn't belong in the country.”

He said he decided to change his life and move to a safe country, even if it meant leaving behind his parents, two sisters aged 12 and eight, and seven-year-old brother.

After fleeing Afghanistan, Alizadah eventually reached Kenya.

He had hoped to register with UN refugee agency UNHCR and seek asylum in Europe. But four years later, his status remains unresolved and he is stuck in a limbo.

“I finished my interview two years ago but have not heard anything back on it,” he said.

The kids love it

Life in the Kakuma camp is hard, where 180,000 refugees – mainly from sub-Saharan countries – live in difficult conditions.

“There are no jobs here. We are totally dependent on food rations. The security situation makes things worse,” he said.

Alizadah trains 15 refugee students, aged 12 and above, from countries like Sudan, Burundi, Congo and Uganda. Photo: Omidulla Alizadah

He said he has been earning extra money by cutting wood and charging mobile phones of other refugees for a small fee.

The idea of giving boxing lessons for young boys in the camp came partly from despair – and his love for the sport.

“I started with a couple of students and I saw there was so much interest. I currently train 15 students from countries like Sudan, Uganda, Burundi and Congo,” he said.

For a modest fee of 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.35) a month, Alizadah said he has many takers.

“I currently have 15 students of all age groups and I hold three sessions a week,” he said.

“The kids love it, and so do their parents. They don't mind shelling out this money so that their children can learn some new skills. It helps them deal with the uncertainties of life in a refugee camp.”

Alizadah may have left behind the boxing rings of his home country, but not his ambitions.

He is stepping up his act by focusing on his training too.

“It is not easy to train for more than an hour because I don’t have a good diet. I get tired too soon.

“But my aim is to represent my country and participate in world championships,” he said.

Updated: August 21, 2023, 8:13 AM