What worst fears and odds can a man encounter? It can’t be as worse as being born without arms and hands, yet swimming. The first time Abbas Karimi jumped into a pool, the water provided him with relief from the intense heat of Kabul.
It also gave him a sense of freedom and protection. Swimming propelled Karimi, who is one of six athletes competing for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo, to flee Afghanistan when he was 16. After winning a national championship in his homeland, he yearned to train for international competition without the daily fears of war and terrorism.
Karimi is one of millions who chose to escape violence in Afghanistan long before the current crisis. In 2013, one of Karimi’s older brothers took him to Iran and connected him with a group that was traveling to Turkey. Over three days and nights, they hiked or stowed in trucks to pass over mountains on the way.
Once in Turkey, Karimi moved between four different refugee camps, nearly one per year. He was determined to keep swimming, sometimes taking a bus twice a day, an hour each way, to a pool where he could train.
With international competition the goal, Karimi had begun posting on Facebook to seek support to reach the Paralympics. Not long after he arrived in Turkey, he connected with Mike Ives, a retired wrestling and football coach in Portland, Ore., who eventually mounted a letter-writing campaign that helped Karimi resettle as a refugee in the United States in 2016.
Karimi lived with Ives in Portland and joined a U.S. Masters Swimming team, the Oregon Reign Masters. In 2017, Karimi competed in the para swimming world championships in Mexico City for the refugee team and won a silver medal in the 50-meter butterfly.
Ives taught Karimi to drive; he passed his license test on his third try. And Karimi made friends with other Afghan refugees in Portland. They would cheer him on at practices and meets and watch action movies with him. Bruce Lee is Karimi’s idol.