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.

5 Charities Helping Make Afghanistan a Better Place to Be a Kid

Modern Afghanistan is not an easy place for a child to grow up. As is all too often the case, war hits children especially hard; reports from recent years estimate that more than 1 million children across Afghanistan have been left orphaned or abandoned as a result of decades of civil conflict.

However, many charitable organizations, both within Afghanistan and internationally, are working hard to build a better, brighter, and safer future for Afghanistan’s children. Read on for a look at five organizations that are putting Afghan kids first.

  1. The Aschiana Foundation

aschiana logoAn example of how productive partnerships can be between the international community and grassroots organizations on the ground in Afghanistan, the Aschiana Foundation is a US-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children. The Aschiana Foundation was established in 2004 by a group of people—including expatriates, diplomats, and military spouses—who had seen for themselves the incredible challenges facing the country’s young children, many of whom were working on the streets of Kabul in an attempt to eke out a living.

Inspired by the work of the local organization Aschiana, which was created in 1995 by Yousef Mohamed, an Afghan engineer, the founders of the Aschiana Foundation were determined to find an effective way to support his efforts to provide education, training, and opportunities to Afghan children excluded from the school system due to financial or other barriers. Today, the support that the Foundation provides to Aschiana in Afghanistan helps tens of thousands of Afghan children find refuge and escape from life on the street.

  1. Save the Children

save the children logoAs its name implies, Save the Children has been a major force in protecting and providing for Afghanistan’s children. At present, the organization’s activities are governed by its three major priorities. The first is to stand up for children’s rights: Save the Children works with local communities, religious leaders, government ministries, and other NGOs to build national child protection networks and provide social workers to support children whose rights are in danger of being violated. The second priority is the improvement of vital health services: Save the Children operates many mobile health clinics with the support of doctors, trained midwives, and community health workers, focusing particularly on reducing child deaths by identifying malnourished children and providing feeding centers where these children can receive life-saving treatment. The final priority, one shared by many other organizations, is education: Save the Children works with the Afghan government to create and implement community-based classes that facilitate access to education for those children who have been shut out of formal schooling.

  1. Afghan Connection

afghan connection logoThis UK-based charity was founded in 2002 by Dr. Sarah Fane, who had spent several years working in Afghanistan as a wartime doctor. Initially established as a medical charity focused on vaccination programs, Afghan Connection has evolved to become an important supporter of education projects in Afghanistan’s northeastern region; the charity’s goal is to concentrate on making the strongest possible impact on a single area.

To date, Afghan Connection has built 42 new schools in the region, serving many remote and rural communities where access to education has been extremely difficult. It has also funded more than 500 teacher training courses to help improve the quality of education that Afghan children receive. Sports programs, and cricket in particular, are another important activity for Afghan Connection; the organization works to build pitches, establish cricket camps, and train coaches so that as many children as possible can reap the benefits of participating in team sports.

  1. Child Soldiers International

child soldiers international logoIn countries impacted by war and violence, the use of child soldiers on all sides of the conflict is becoming an increasingly common practice, and Afghanistan is no exception. Child Soldiers International works to build awareness of child recruitment in Afghanistan by performing critical research and field work that keeps this pressing issue at the forefront of the international agenda. The organization also lobbies for practical changes in law and policy that can support the Afghan government and its partners in meeting the challenges of combating child recruitment.

  1. Afghan Mobile Mini-Circus for Children

Afghan MMCC logoAfghanistan’s children need access to critical services, such as education, but they also require fun and playtime. Afghan Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) brings these two worlds together with its unique use of circus arts as a teaching tool. Dedicated to empowering young people and working with the philosophy that children are the ones who know the best way to communicate with other children, MMCC brings child-led educational performances and workshops to young people all across Afghanistan. Since 2002, the organization has reached nearly 3 million audience members in 25 Afghan provinces and has leveraged the joyous atmosphere of the circus to engage children and youth on key topics like health and hygiene, landmine awareness, and peace.