In the space of six years, Aker Ai Obaidi has been put at risk by war, separated from his family, travelled across a continent to seek safety, learned an unknown language and built a life in a new country. Now he’s hoping his gift for wrestling can end with a medal as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
At 14 years of age, Aker Ai Obaidi should have been thinking about school, friends, family, sport – and all the other everyday things that occupy teenagers worldwide. Instead, he was fleeing for his life. The group calling itself Islamic State had imposed rule in his home city, Mosul, in Iraq, and were recruiting boys about his age. He had to get out.
“I didn’t want to leave, but I had to.” said Obaidi, now 20. “It was a very scary experience. I didn’t know where I was going or where I would end up. I was separated from my family and following a group of others. I was scared whether my family would survive the war. I had to look after myself. The whole situation was very tough, psychologically, and I’ve had to see doctors about what happened to me.”
Having initially escaped through Kurdistan, Obaidi ended up in Austria. “We couldn’t leave the country and were eventually granted asylum. It wasn’t a plan to come to Austria. I’d never heard of it. It is just where I ended up.”
Settling in the mountainous Tyrol region, however, Obaidi has thrived. His talent as a Greco-Roman wrestler was soon noticed by local clubs, and over five years in the country he has learned to speak fluent German and excelled at school. He recently joined 49 others when he was awarded a Refugee Athlete Scholarship by the International Olympic Committee. While 10 athletes competed for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, a larger contingent is expected to be named for Tokyo 2020.
“I attended middle school in Austria and did some German courses,” he said. “It was hard, but I made Austrian friends who really helped me. I love Austria, it is a very beautiful country. The food is great, and I love the mountains. They feel like home now. Being involved in sport and being a sportsperson has helped me settle. My talent opened lots of doors for me and I made a lot of friends in wrestling.
“There are tough things about being a refugee. Filling in forms and visas, going to the government to prove you can stay in the country – all this is difficult, especially when it’s not in your mother tongue. So I was very happy to get the Refugee Athlete Scholarship in 2019.”
Obaidi has been involved in the sport for most of his life. Aged six, his wrestling coach father began his tuition. Both Aker and his younger brother showed great potential – frequently while wrestling each other – and by the age of nine, they were “taking it seriously, like a profession”.
Obaidi started entering – and winning – tournaments, to the point that “some other countries were interested in paying for us to change nationalities so we could wrestle for them”. But this was scuppered when he had to make his mercy dash out of the region.
“Wrestling isn’t huge in Austria,” he said. “It’s a winter sport place. But I am training hard and we have good training. I am usually in the gym two times per day, for two to three hours. I also enjoy helping kids train, and helping them get into a new sport. It is very interesting.”
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Obaidi has shone on the junior international scene and has also impressed against some seniors. “I did some fighting at a camp with the Serbian wrestler [Davor Stefanek] who won [66kg Greco-Roman] gold at Rio 2016, and I felt good against him,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘I am at the standard to win a medal at Tokyo 2020’.
It is my goal. It’s the biggest dream, to compete at an Olympics, and because I don’t have a nationality right now, it would be great to show that refugees can compete and succeed, too.”
The wrestler has also become a leader among refugees in Austria. “I’m trying to give us a voice, to show that refugees are not bad people. We should not always be thought of as the bad guys and associated with negative things. We want to show that foreign people can do good things, be good in sports, get medals.”
Making it to Tokyo 2020 can only reinforce the point. “I am trying to train as much as possible for the under-23 [World Championships] in Finland right now, after which my goal will be Tokyo,” he said. “I saw the refugee team in 2016 and was fascinated by the kinds of people that got the chance to show what they could do. I will try very hard to be a part of this. The pressure will be big, but my motivation will be bigger.”
Meanwhile, he remains apart from his family, with whom he tries to speak every day. “It is still very dangerous, where they are in Iraq,” Obaidi said. “So I worry. But they are very proud of me, just like anyone who might get to go to the Olympic Games.”