Fighting for a life: The Afghan refugees finding hope in MMA

Afghan mixed martial arts fighters living abroad try to bridge the gap between poverty and glory after Taliban bans the sport.

Paris, France – When Parwaiz Arabzai is introduced to the crowd at Hexagone MMA 6, he looks the very definition of a professional mixed martial arts fighter. He has the wiry, muscled physique of a Conor McGregor or a Khabib Nurmagomedov.

He limbers up confidently and raises a gloved fist as the ring announcer yells into the mic: “Parwaiiiiz … Hhhhhharabzaiiiii!!”

Soon, the 24-year-old is chasing Georgia’s Nika Kobaxidze around the mat, only to lose in the third round by submission.

It’s a fate that can await any fighter in a sport where a split second’s lapse can make your punching power or your grappling skills utterly meaningless.

For Arabzai, whose professional record now stands at 4-3-0 after that loss in January, defeat hurts more than it does for most. He has no family to go back to, no settled home, no steady job. Nine years after he left Afghanistan as a teenage refugee, failing to make a career as a fighter is not an option.

“When I arrived in France, I was on the streets. Then I was in a shelter. Then when I started training, it was a great motivation,” Arabzai told Al Jazeera after a sparring session in Paris.

“Now I’m pro, I’ve fought for different organisations, and I want to be an advertisement for others as well – to show how important sport can be.”

Arabzai goes on the attack against Kobaxidze – but he would ultimately lose the fight [Hexagone MMA 6]
Arabzai goes on the attack against Kobaxidze, but he would ultimately lose the fight [Courtesy of Hexagone MMA 6]

Arabzai’s achievement is already gargantuan – from being homeless in Paris to reaching MMA’s professional ranks with his contests broadcast worldwide on the DAZN channel. But even at this level, poverty remains a big threat.

His first fights earned him about $1,000. Now, he’s just trained for two months for a fight that was meant to pay him $2,000 on June 3. But it was cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather forecast in Béziers in the south of France, where the contest was to have been held in an open-air coliseum. The last time he fought was the defeat in Paris in January.

He still has to find the money to pay for food, a place to live, a coach, travel to his appointments with French social services and medical expenses.

When discussing his prospects, the weeks, months and years of worry slowly cast a shadow over his face.

“The other fighters, they can be at home at ease with their families, have some work, but my life is very complicated,” he says.

“I had a temporary contract working at a local supermarket, but I had to stop because training for this fight was very intense.

“I need a sponsor. I have to look for support.”

‘I lost everything’

While Arabzai picked up the sport after arriving in Europe, many of his compatriots used the two decades between Taliban rule to advance MMA, and their careers, in Afghanistan.

One of those fighters was Sayed Waris Hashime, 25, who until 2021 was thriving at club level in Kabul. He won multiple amateur belts, and he and his fellow fighters were greeted by crowds of young men on their return to Kabul from a competition in India.

When the Taliban took over again in August 2021, MMA was banned, and fighters feared for their lives. Hashime says fighters he knew were murdered.

Hashime was particularly at risk, having been a soldier in the Afghan National Army and, he says, one of former President Ashraf Ghani’s ceremonial guards.

Sayed Waris Hashime
Hashime is unable to fight professionally in Switzerland while his asylum claim is processed [Courtesy of Sayed Waris Hashime]

Hashime is now also in Europe. But unlike Arabzai, who competes for France, Hashime is essentially stateless. He says his Afghan passport was burned by prison guards in Turkey. He fled to Switzerland, where he’s now awaiting a decision on whether he can stay. He’s unable to work or pursue his ambitions for a professional career while his claim is processed.

“After the beginning of the Taliban, I lost everything. I ran to Europe to look for a safe country for my future,” Hashime told Al Jazeera in a video message on WhatsApp.

“I passed through many jails. I am in the asylum procedure, and I want to thank Switzerland for saving my health because I was in a bad state.

“I live in a refugee home in one room with up to three other men. I receive minimum social assistance to buy food. I am in contact with organisations who help me learn the language. I train alone in the park or with one person who helps me go to the gym sometimes because I don’t have money to pay for it.

“I hope they give me a positive answer soon to start my new chapter of life here because at the moment my situation is very difficult and I am extremely stressed.”

‘Everything we worked for is in danger’

Baz Mohammad Mubariz, 33, who founded the MMA federation in Afghanistan in 2008 and organised the Afghanistan Fighting Championship, is now living without a visa in Thailand after escaping from Kabul.

He says his life was threatened in Afghanistan as he protested against restrictions on the national MMA and martial arts federations that he presided over.

Afghan MMA founder Baz Mohammad Mubariz returning after a fight [Baz Mohammad Mubariz]
Mubariz returning to Afghanistan after a fight [Courtesy of Baz Mohammad Mubariz]

It was a battle he was heartbroken to lose, having overseen a difficult but hopeful dawn for MMA in the past 15 years.

“At first nobody liked MMA. Families didn’t like to take their children because they said it was a violent sport and caused mental and physical damage,” Mubariz told Al Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul over Skype.

“But as we participated in more competitions, the people began following our athletes – especially the youth.

“But now the restrictions that the Taliban have on holding professional MMA competitions means that the motivation and spirit of Afghanistan’s MMA fighters has completely broken down.”

Some still appear to be fighting with Ahmad Wali Hotak apparently travelling abroad for fights and being welcomed home by government figures in Kabul.

Afghan MMA founder Baz Mohammad Mubariz with former president Ashraf Ghani, and returning after a fight [Baz Mohammad Mubariz]
Afghan MMA federation founder Mubariz, right, with former President Hamid Karzai [Courtesy of Baz Mohammad Mubariz]

But Mubariz says that in the months after the Taliban takeover, he was unable to keep the sport going domestically or guarantee his family’s safety.

For female fighters, the situation seems to be completely hopeless.

“One day, I was informed that the head of the [General Directorate of Physical Education and Sport] decided that the activities of the MMA federation should be closed. … There were 500 female members in our federation. We received a letter saying that girls no longer have the right to work and practice [MMA].”

It wasn’t long until Mubariz decided he had to leave with his wife, daughter and two sons.

“When I tried to exert authority over the illegal decisions made against physical training, I was threatened and insulted several times,” he says.

“Another time, the commander of bodyguards of the [Taliban’s sports directorate] head treated me very badly at the HQ of the Afghanistan Olympics and threatened to kill me.

“I then received a call from the executive head of [Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee], who said my life was in danger. I decided to leave Afghanistan for the sake of my family and myself.”

Mubariz said four Taliban officials came to his house to question him and, when they failed to find him there, they confiscated his car.

“I asked the Taliban for justice because I am a sportsman, but my problems were not addressed. Finally after six months, I managed to go to Pakistan, get a Thai family visa and leave Afghanistan with the hundreds of dreams that I had,” he said.

Al Jazeera contacted the General Directorate of Physical Education and Sport for a comment on the issues raised in this article, but it did not respond.

Hashime with the Afghan flag during an international bout [Sayed Waris Hashime]
Hashime with the Afghan flag during an international bout [Courtesy of Sayed Waris Hashime]

With his Thai visa now expired, Mubariz, like Hashime, can’t compete or make a living from his profession.

“I worked hard for the people of Afghanistan for many years, won honours in the world championship and was the ambassador of the National Police of the Ministry of Interior of Afghanistan, but today I live in Thailand like a life sentence,” he said on WhatsApp.

“My family and I spend our days and nights thinking about our future. Here, I can neither do sports nor secure the future of my children. Everything we have worked for is in danger.”

In Paris, Arabzai at least doesn’t have that problem – he can compete under the French flag while also taking the Afghan flag to his fights.

But his dream of a sporting career, or at least a stable life, hangs in the balance.

“Parwaiz is at the beginning of his professional career, so the money he gets with fighting isn’t enough to allow him to live,” says Mathieu Nicourt, owner of the Free Fight Academy, which spotted the young refugee’s potential.

“Even the first time I saw him in the gym, I knew Parwaiz was a fighter. I knew he would become professional. But what we need is to get sponsors to help him prepare well and give him a good career in MMA.”

Source: Al Jazeera