A growing sports program is providing people affected by regional conflict in Afghanistan with dignity, confidence, and hope for the future.
Since the first wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 2012, rehabilitators have found that developing organized sports programs for people in wheelchairs can change lives. Leisure activities are not always emphasized in Afghanistan, but therapists are bringing sports into the forefront of treatment.
History of Wheelchair Sports in Afghanistan
People in wheelchairs in Afghanistan began organizing to play basketball before an official organization existed. In 2009, a new team asked for someone from the United States to teach them how to play, and Jess Markt, a player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, responded to the request. In November of that year, he went to Afghanistan with plans to work with the team for one week.
Markt, who became a paraplegic at age 19 after his spine was severed in a car crash, said the experience in Afghanistan was life-changing. He subsequently deepened his involvement with the new wheelchair basketball team there. He collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Motivation UK to have basketball wheelchairs sent to Afghanistan and publicize the new sport nationwide. The work became known as the Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project.
“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” Markt told the online magazine Folks. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”
Therapy through Leisure
Since 2011, Markt has worked with Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopedic program in Afghanistan, to integrate wheelchair basketball and therapy for people who have lost limbs or can no longer use limbs due to injury. Cairo, a physical therapist from Italy, helps people learn to use prosthetic limbs or re-use their limbs.
Cairo recently told NPR that in Afghanistan, people with disabilities are often fiercely protected by their families. While that means families are vigilant about caring for loved ones with disabilities, they may shield them from developing outside hobbies careers, or friendships. For many, developing skills on the basketball court has provided them with new purpose that spills into other parts of their lives. Many look forward to basketball practice, which provides fun and an otherwise unheard-of opportunity to play a sport.
Markt described one Afghan man who was injured as a child in the war and had “no active life” as an adult because his family did not expect him to contribute. At age 29, the man began playing wheelchair basketball and eventually joined the national team.
Wheelchair basketball helped the man envision a new path for himself. He took out a microloan through a Red Cross program and opened an automotive parts and repair business. He is now a key member of his community, and he returned his relief card that entitled him to a monthly food allocation because of his disability. He stated he no longer needed it because he had a job.
This man is not alone. Markt said that wheelchair basketball has given many players the confidence to start businesses or find jobs.
Taking on the World
The ICRC organized the first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan in 2012, an event that Cairo said at the time would have been “unimaginable” before. Cairo noted that the players had been transformed physically and psychologically, becoming “much stronger in many ways.”
Now, more than 500 people now play recreational basketball in seven Red Cross rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan. Players compete in tournaments across the country, and the national teams have traveled to other countries such as Japan to compete and take part in international wheelchair basketball training. The national teams are hoping to compete in the Paralympics, even though they haven’t won any international tournaments yet.
In the 25 years that Cairo has worked in Afghanistan, he has hired several hundred patients to assist in ICRC’s rehabilitation centers. Cairo has helped more than 100,000 people, including more than 150 patients who have learned to play wheelchair basketball.
The Future of Rehab
Cairo and Markt continue to partner to advance rehabilitation efforts for citizens of Afghanistan. They recently toured the United States to talk about their work, including the latest technology in their field and their expanding work in other countries in the developing world.
Innovations are being made in wheelchair design, spinal cord regeneration, and prosthetics. Additionally, the ICRC is still building centers around the world to meet a “relentless” demand for prosthetics, treatment, and rehabilitation.
In Afghanistan, ICRC centers treat thousands of patients each year while also addressing issues with security and on-going conflict. Even with these challenges, ICRC’s innovations, including its home-based therapy and wheelchair basketball, are transforming lives across Afghanistan.