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First Woman on Paralympic Refugee Team Admires Giannis Antetokounmpo

September 3, 2021

At the Tokyo Paralympics Alia Issa of Greece, who became the first woman to compete as a member of the Paralympic Refugee team, also served as a flagbearer during the Opening Ceremony.

Issa was born in Greece in 2001 to Syrian refugees and she competes in a track and field event called the club throw. “It [took] a lot of hard training and sacrificing,” Issa told NBC Sports’ ‘On Her Turf,’ adding, “I’m really excited for it.”

Alex Azzi, writing for the NBC segment, notes that “as a woman and refugee with a disability, Issa lives at the intersection of three large – but often overlooked and underrepresented – sectors of the global population. While an estimated 15 percent of people worldwide live with a disability, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that percentage is even higher among the 82 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Women are also more likely than men to live with a disability, though women with disabilities are less likely to be represented in the workplace, classroom, and on the playing field. Even at the Paralympics, women comprise just 40 percent of all competitors, though strides have been made to increase this number in recent years.”

Issa, who is the only woman on the inaugural Paralympic Refugee team, said, “I’m really happy that I can represent women – and women with disabilities – in sport because I want to pass the message that women shouldn’t stay at home… If you have a disability, that should not hold you back. You can still achieve great things through hard work.”

And developing mental toughness. Growing up as a disabled child in Greece was a struggle. Issa “had to endure prejudice and discrimination, including at her primary school, Azzi wrote, and Issa said, “the kids there were really harsh and I got bullied a lot… I think if all the kids had the opportunity to get to know me better, and see through my disabilities, then… I would have had a lot of friends back then.”

Azzi writes that, “four years ago, Issa began attending a school for students with disabilities. In addition to providing Issa with a safer and more respectful environment in which to learn, her new school also offered her a chance to try sports. After testing out cycling and boccia, she eventually settled on the club throw.”

Issa said that “throughout this process I saw big changes with my disability… I saw a lot of improvement with my movements… my coordination and everything regarding my disability.”

Issa is now coached in Athens by Dionysios Koumparis at Tyrtaios Sports Club for the Disabled. She was born in Greece and receives support from the Hellenic Paralympic Committee, but she is still not a citizen of Greece, which does not offer birthright citizenship.

“It’s really complicated for someone who is not brought up by Greek parents to get citizenship… My dream is to participate in a big event – maybe the Paralympic Games – wearing the blue and white shirt representing the Greek colors.”

Azzi noted that, “Giannis Antetokounmpo – the two-time NBA MVP who led the Milwaukee Bucks to the 2021 NBA title – was born in Greece to parents who had immigrated from Nigeria. For the first 18 years of his life, he was stateless, and he only received Greek citizenship prior to travelling to the United States for the NBA draft.”

Issa told On Her Turf, “he’s my idol because he also [came] from another country as an immigrant… From starting in Greece, he achieved such great things overseas. One day in my sports career… I want to achieve great things like he did.”

Material from NBC Sports’ On Her Turf was used in this article.

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