This Is How Wheelchair Basketball Improved Orthopedic Treatment in Afghanistan

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

wheelchair sportsPeople 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

wheelchair sportsThe 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.

Spotlight on the Asia Society: Introducing the World to Afghanistan

The Asia Society is the world’s leading educational organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding, respect, and partnership between Western and Asian countries, including Afghanistan and other countries of the Greater Middle East. Read on to learn more about the Asia Society, and how it’s helping the world get to know Afghanistan.

What is the Asia Society?

Asia Society logoThe Asia Society is a non-profit, non-partisan institution with a broad mission to prepare Asians and Americans for a shared future in a global context. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III, the Asia Society has grown over the years to become an international, cross-disciplinary organization, working across the fields of arts, culture, education, business, and policy to generate ideas and insight, address present challenges, and prepare for a collaborative future. Today, the Asia Society’s focus covers more than 50 countries and territories—the Society has major centers and offices in cities ranging from Houston and Los Angeles to Manila and Mumbai—making it one of the most important contributors to the ongoing conversation about Asian-American relations.

What does the Asia Society do?

The Asia Society’s scope of activity is extremely broad. A sampling of the Society’s work and initiatives includes: the Center for Global Education, which brings world leaders and institutions together to tackle the urgent question of how to educate today’s students for employability in a global era; the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that addresses major policy challenges for the Asia-Pacific region by working with top experts and policymakers; the Asia Arts Awards, a signature event that honors transformative figures in Asia’s contemporary art world; and the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, an ongoing collaborative dialogue aiming to foster the development and sharing of urban sustainability strategies among Asia-Pacific communities.

How is the Asia Society helping the world get to know Afghanistan?

As one of the Asia Society’s focus countries, Afghanistan is an important presence in much of the Society’s work. Some specific ways that the Asia Society is bringing Afghanistan to the world’s attention and building awareness about how Afghanistan is developing include:

Creative Voices of Islam in AsiaCreative Voices of Muslim Asia—The Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Muslim Asia is an innovative multidisciplinary program that works to build understanding of the diversity of Islam through the arts. The initiative incorporates Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a collaborative festival and the first festival of Muslim arts to be held in New York City. There’s also a youth media exchange program that helps connect young people with digital storytelling opportunities that allow them to participate in critical dialogue around important issues like globalization and immigration. Creative Voices of Muslim Asia also sponsors a regular series of online publications and features that showcase important artistic voices and perspectives from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and regions.

The Arts & Museum Summit—First launched in 2015, this summit is a valuable opportunity for museum and arts leaders from across Asia and the Middle East, the US, and Europe to connect, explore challenges, and share knowledge. At the inaugural summit in 2015, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was a key panel member in a discussion on threats and risks to the arts in contemporary Asia.

The Asia Game Changer Awards—Launched by the Asia Society in 2014, the Asia Game Changer Awards aim to fill a critical gap by identifying and celebrating leaders in all fields who are making profound and positive contributions to the future of Asia. In 2016, Afghanistan’s Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was honored for his commitment to bringing music back to Afghanistan in the face of extreme violence and threats. Read more about Dr. Sarmast’s remarkable work and legacy here.

Does the Asia Society organize initiatives within Afghanistan?

While much of the Asia Society’s work involving Afghanistan is intended to help the rest of the world learn about the country, the Society does support some initiatives taking place in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative (AYLI), a program designed to build and nurture the next generation of Afghan leaders. Operating under the broader umbrella of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, AYLI annually selects a number of promising Afghan citizens under the age of 40 to become a “young Afghan leader” for a one-year term.

As part of their term, AYLI members participate in monthly meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s main challenges and how the next generation of leaders can help solve them; develop a next-generation curriculum for leadership development workshops that can be delivered to Afghan university students; and work with a media consultant to develop a media outreach strategy highlighting the work of young Afghan leaders. In addition, participants attend the Afghan Young Leaders in Action Youth Summit, an annual forum that helps AYLI members make key connections and assess their progress as a group.

What You Need to Know about Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

The creative arts have long served as an important tool for empowerment and social development all around the world. In Afghanistan today, the not-for-profit NGO Bond Street Theatre is harnessing the transformational power of the arts to bring hope and change to Afghans seeking to rebuild their lives and their communities after decades of conflict. Read on to learn more about Bond Street Theatre and its role in Afghanistan’s development.

What is Bond Street Theatre?

bondstreettheatrelogoFor more than 40 years, Bond Street Theatre has been using the uplifting powers of the arts to respond to global humanitarian crises. Founded in 1976 with a mission to promote peace and understanding through the arts, the New York-based organization operates around the world, working with local artists and civilians to develop creative programming and performances that illustrate and address important social issues.

Through its theater and theater-based programs, Bond Street Theatre helps inspire and educate youth, promote human rights, give space to marginalized voices, and provide peacebuilding and healing tools for communities recovering from conflict. The organization has worked in more than 40 countries around the world in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, refugee camps, remote communities, and urban centers.

A history of Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

2003—Bond Street Theatre’s first project in Afghanistan—a healing program targeting the thousands of refugee families pouring back into the country—is undertaken in collaboration with Exile Theatre, a local company composed of professional theater artists who were formerly living in exile. In addition, Bond Street Theatre works with Afghanistan-Schulen, a German nonprofit dedicated to education in Afghanistan, to support educational initiatives reaching an estimated 25,000 children in the rural regions of the northern part of the country.

2005—Bond Street Theatre spends two semesters in residence at Kabul University, teaching students and developing Beyond The Mirror, a collaborative production devised with Exile Theater. Beyond The Mirror marks the first-ever theatrical collaboration between Afghan and American companies. The production enjoys its world premiere in Kabul and later tours the US and Japan to resounding critical and public acclaim.

2006-2009—This three-year period sees the launch of the US-Afghan Arts Exchange and Conflict Resolution Project, a bold new initiative intended to foster and facilitate artistic exchange and dialogue among artists from Afghanistan, India, and the US. Participating artists work together to create A Kite’s Tale, a play about children’s rights in India, which is presented together with inspirational and education workshops for women in rural communities, street children, and other marginalized groups.

2007—Bond Street Theatre partners with Aschiana, a Kabul-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghan children working on the streets, to deliver workshops on self-expression, self-confidence, and group cooperation. In addition, the company spends time at the Mediothek Center in Kunduz training a local theater group.

2008—Bond Street Theatre’s partnership with Aschiana continues, this time in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the company delivers theater technique-based workshops to build self-confidence and improve education for street children.

2010-2012—The year 2010 marks the launch of the Theatre for Social Development Project, in which Bond Street Theatre works to train and support Afghan theater companies. The project’s broad goals are to use theater to bring new information and ideas to rural areas with very low literacy rates. It also aims to help build the capacity of local theater companies to serve as an educational and inspirational resource for their own communities on an ongoing basis.

Four Afghan theater companies participate in the project: Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat creates two shows that focus on conflict resolution and family issues and are presented in correctional centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and schools and youth centers; Kabul’s White Star Company produces two shows that use audience participation to explore alternative solutions to critical social issues; Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad develops two performances addressing women’s rights and rule-of-law issues; and Kandahar Theatre introduces two shows, one of which is performed directly in family homes for audiences who have never before seen live theater.

2013-2014—Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, Bond Street Theatre launches the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project in the months leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential and run-off elections. Working together with local partner theater companies, Bond Street Theatre’s touring performances help educate more than 150,000 people on voter rights and related issues.

2014-2016—Bond Street Theatre continues its focus on young people with the launch of the Youth-Led Community Improvement Project. In this country-wide initiative, 375 youth from 25 provinces come together to receive intensive training in leadership, community service, and the arts. Theater-based workshops focus on creative problem-solving, improved communication skills, and identification of key issues in the participants’ home communities.

The project culminates with each participant creating a community Action Plan, and then returning to his or her home community to implement those plans. The Youth-Led Community Improvement Project participants are now a vitally important part of Afghanistan’s growing network of young people committed to creating lasting change.

2017—Bond Street Theatre works with youth leaders from eight Afghan provinces to help inform and engage communities across the country on issues and questions around access to justice and legal rights.