Afghanistan’s National Wheelchair Basketball team will be clashing with Italian players in their first-ever international match in Bologna, Italy on 22-23 May. The team, which arrived in Italy on 20 May at the invitation of Italian sports club Briantea84, is in high spirits and is raring to go, wrote Jess Markt, their coach, on his blog before heading for Italy.

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The team’s wheelchairs are made by Motivation, a British charity producing low-cost, high-quality sports chairs for the disabled ©ICRC/Jessica Barry

“I have to imagine the players are at least a little nervous about their first journey into the unknown of the western world, but if they are, they aren’t showing it. I guess when you grow up with the types of challenges these men have all overcome to get where they are today, even a first international basketball competition in a far-off country isn’t such a daunting prospect,” wrote Jess, himself a wheelchair player and a professional basketball coach from the US.

Since 2010, wheelchair basketball players from ICRC Orthopaedic Centres in Mazar, Herat and Kabul in Afghanistan, together with players from Maimana, have been trained for some weeks each year by Jess. The training is facilitated by the ICRC. Last year, a national team was formed in 2013 under the auspices of Afghanistan’s Para-Olympic Committee.

After the first match, the players will head for Cantu in Como province, near Milan for their second match on 28-29 May.  They will arrive back home in Afghanistan on 30 May.

The ICRC team in Kabul spoke to four of the players before they left for Italy. Here’s what they had to say about their trip to Italy, their love for basketball and the ICRC’s role in their lives:

“Having a disability does not stop one from doing things”

Farhad Mohammadi (21) from Herat: afflicted by polio

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Farhad Mohammadi is a benchworker at the ICRC’s Herat Orthopaedic Centre ©ICRC/Jessica Barry

Until the age of seven, I could only crawl on my hands and knees. Then a friend told my family about the ICRC’s Orthopaedic Centre in Herat and my parents took me there. Today, after years of treatment, I can walk.

I believe that sport is good for everyone’s health, and morale. And basketball has become an important part of my life since I started playing four years ago. My family encourages me, and my mother and brother are especially proud of what I am doing.

I know the Italian players will be hard to beat because they have been playing for years.  Nevertheless, our team is talented, too, and we want to show the world that having a disability does not stop one from doing things.

I am looking forward to playing against these international players, and to sitting with them afterwards and exchanging ideas. After we get back to Afghanistan, I hope we can be an example to other disabled people. When you have a disability, it is easy to think that you can’t do anything. Playing basketball has shown me that that is not true. Becoming sportsmen has helped all of us to have faith in ourselves.

I am now a benchworker at the Herat Ortho Centre and earn my own living. If the Ortho Centres did not exist, many people like me would simply be begging on the streets.

“I’m excited about going to Italy… I would like to go to the beach”

Shahpoor Sorkhabi (21) from Maimana: has difficulty walking since childhood due to severe burns

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Shahpoor Sorkhabi has been playing at the Maimana Ortho Centrre for four years ©ICRC/Jessica Barry

My mother tried to discourage my love of basketball, saying I should put my studies first. But I persisted and started playing four years ago at the Ortho Centre in Maimana, where I was receiving treatment.

I played in a wheelchair basketball tournament at the Ortho Centre here in Kabul in 2012 and was made man of the match. After that, my mother became proud of me. I was proud of myself, too.

It is not only at basketball that I have triumphed. After the tournament I stayed on in Kabul and underwent operations on my legs that have given me back some mobility.

It’s true that I love basketball, but I love football more. Ronaldo is my hero. I even wore his number, number seven, when I first joined the national basketball team.

I’m excited about going to Italy. I want to meet other sportsmen and go sightseeing. I would like to go to the beach, too.

“When I am playing, I feel like a perfect man”

Nasrullah Nastratyar (19), from Mazar: afflicted by polio

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Nasrullah Nastratyar plays at the ICRC Ortho Centre in Mazar ©ICRC/Jessica Barry

I have been playing basketball for the past three years at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar. When I am playing, I feel like a perfect man, and it helps me overcome the feeling I sometimes have that I cannot do anything.

All the others in the place where I live are backing me, and will be following the team while we are abroad. They give me a lot of encouragement and support.

This will be the first time that I have travelled outside of Afghanistan, and I try to imagine how it will be. Apart from the basketball, I am looking forward to visiting historical sites and meeting beautiful people.

This trip will show us many new things, although I am happy with my life as it is now. I feel well, and it is a dream come true to be playing in the national team. In the long term, I want to finish my studies, and then we will see. For now, I am living by the day.

“We do get tired but it’s worth it. We are aiming to win!”

Mohammad Saber Sultani (24) from Kabul: lost both legs at age three in a mine accident

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Mohammad Saber Sultani trains at the Kabul Ortho Centre ©ICRC/Jessica Barry

We are training for three hours every morning, and two hours every afternoon. Jess, our coach teaches us well. We do get tired but it’s worth it. We are aiming to win!

When I was two, my father died, and a year later I lost my legs. I lived with my uncle, and moved to Pakistan during the Taliban regime. After we returned to Kabul years later, I opened a small grocery shop. It didn’t pay well, but we survived. One of my friends told me about the basketball training at the ICRC Ortho Centre here in Kabul.  I was interested in sports so I went along. This was how I came to know about the ICRC’s support to people with disabilities, about their vocational training and micro-credit loans. After some time, I took a loan for my shop, but the business didn’t go well.

Nearly all the staff at the ortho centres are former patients who have received a professional training as therapists or technicians. I asked Alberto for a job and was taken on. Today, I am a bench worker making feet for prosthetic limbs. My life is much better now. I am learning to read and write, and, with Alberto’s help, I have built myself a house. I am now putting all my efforts into basketball. What is important is to have a positive attitude and play with a good heart.

When I go to Italy, I would like to see Alberto’s home. He helped me build mine. I would like to see his, too.

Click here to meet the entire Afghanistan wheelchair basketball team as introduced by their coach Jess Markt on his blog.

Click here to learn more about Briantea84.

 ICRC New Delhi