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Iraqi wrestler who fled war-torn home at 14 wants to be the voice for refugees at Tokyo Olympics

From the mountains of Inzing to the Olympics, Obaidi's salvation

Aker Ai Obaidi Refugee Wrestler Tokyo Olympics

Aker Ai Obaidi (Source: United World Wrestling)


Utsha Roy

Updated: 21 July 2021 4:40 PM GMT

Every player in the refugee contingent participating in the Olympics 2020 has a unique story of their own. It is a story of true grit and inspiration; narrating how they overcame every obstacle to be granted the chance to participate in the games. The story of Aker Ai Obaidi is no different. It has tragic beginnings with him being displaced from his native town of Mosul to Austria while he was practically just a child, sans his family.

Aker had an everyday life in Mosul; he began wrestling at the age of 6 and did things that every other six-year-old does. He competed in junior wrestling championships for fun and attracted attention from all over the nation; he did not have any concrete plans of becoming a professional wrestler yet. Then, one day, everything in his home town changed.

A group called Islamic State stormed into his town and started recruiting boys his age. Afraid of being recruited, Obaidi fled his country. Talking to the Olympic Official website, he remembers how scary the initial experience had been for him. "I did not want to leave . . . I was separated from my family and following a group of others. I was scared whether my family would survive the war. I had to look after myself." He also conceded that the situation was demanding and very complex, and he later had to seek help from doctors to reconcile with everything he had gone through.

New Beginnings:

Looking for a place to live, he arrived in Austria, aged 14, and was granted asylum. He had not heard the name of the country he was supposed to live in; he just "ended up (there) as we couldn't leave". As a teenager, he was enrolled in a school and made to learn elementary German, but life proved quite hard without a family to guide him.

There are tough things about being a refugee," Obaidi said to the Olympic website. "Filling in forms and visas, going to the government to prove you can stay in the country – all this is difficult, especially when it's not in your mother tongue."

Wrestling was his only comfort and opened the door to various kinds of opportunities. He found happiness on the wrestling mat and continued training when he was not at his job (painting). Two years later, he was persuaded by Benedikt "Mo" Ernst to move to the small mountain town of Inzing to continue training.

It was a cultural shock from the boy from Mosul, used to living in big cities. Ernest organized an apartment for him to live in, and soon, he could speak fluent German and had got over most of the initial difficulties. The local clubs in Inzing recognized his talent, and he made new friends who guided him along the way. Obaidi loves his new country; he says, "I love Austria; it is a very beautiful country. The food is great, and I love the mountains. They feel like home now. Being involved in sport and being a sportsperson has helped me settle. My talent opened lots of doors for me and I made many friends in wrestling."

He continued performing well on the junior international scene, and after some impressive performances, he was invited by Serbian Olympic champion Davor Stefanek to a training camp. It was then that he was able to understand his worth. "I felt good against him," Obaidi said. "That's when I thought, 'I am at the standard to win a medal at Tokyo 2020'.

The Olympic Dream:

The Olympics became his dream, something he was striving towards and to make sure that his focus does not stray, he painted the five Olympic rings on the wall of his apartment to serve as a reminder of his dreams. In 2019, he was awarded the Refugee Athlete Scholarship by the Olympic Committee, which meant that he would benefit from additional funding and training support on his quest to compete at the Olympic Games.

"I was very happy to get the Refugee Athlete Scholarship," he said. "I don't have a nationality right now; it would be great to show that refugees can compete and succeed, too." Voicing the refugees is one of his aims. "We should not always be thought of as the bad guys and associated with negative things. We want to show that foreign people can do good things, be good in sports, get medals," he says.

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