Culture TEDx

They feel like they can fly: The first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan, seeded in a TED wish

Posted by:


Close your eyes and listen to the grunts and jostling, the smack of rubber on cement and triumphant high-fives. You could be listening to a pickup basketball game anywhere. But you’re in Afghanistan and this is much more than just a game.

It is the country’s very first wheelchair basketball tournament and the players are all disabled. Some have lost limbs to landmines, while others have suffered spinal cord injuries in car accidents. But you wouldn’t know it by looking in their eyes.

In a country where disabled people are generally given pity but no rights, this sight is nothing short of incredible. Look beyond the sweat and smiles, and you’ll discover a newfound sense of purpose.

Their coach and referee, US basketball player and trainer Jess Markt, describes the feeling as euphoric. “Two years ago these guys were barely leaving their houses,” he says. “Now they say they feel like they can fly.”

This wheelchair basketball tournament was organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in cooperation with the Afghan Para-Olympic Committee, earlier this year. The head of the ICRC’s orthopedic rehabilitation program, Alberto Cairo, says that up until recently, such an event would have been unimaginable.

“I used to think physical rehabilitation wasn’t a priority, but I’ve learned that dignity cannot wait for better times,” says Cairo, who gave a TED Talk last year at TEDxRC².

Suddenly, one of the players scores a goal and Alberto cheers and gesticulates from the sidelines. “I’ve been in Afghanistan for 22 years but I’m still an Italian,” he jokes. “Seriously, though, you can see the players’ psychological and physical transformation… they’ve become so much stronger in many ways.”

[ted id=1311 width=560 height=315]

This tournament is part of the “big wish” Cairo shared in his TEDxRC² talk for helping disabled people overcome the social and physical barriers they face in war-torn countries. “You can give someone a pair of artificial legs, but what really makes them stand tall is a sense of dignity and pride,” he says in the talk. “It’s a job and knowing they have a place in society. It’s being a student or an athlete. It’s having a say.”

Over the past two decades, Cairo has hired more than 250 former patients to work at the ICRC’s seven rehabilitation centers in Afghanistan. Together, they’ve helped 100,000 people learn to find the strength to not only walk, but also to hope again, through education, training and microfinance programs… and now, sports. The wheelchair basketball initiative has helped train more than 125 Afghan players, including 25 women.

Today, as we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we celebrate their success, and the amazing potential of disabled people in Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

This post was written by Anna K. Nelson, the curator of TEDxRC² and spokesperson for the ICRC.