Iranian taekwondo exile flies the flag for refugees at European Games

Kasra Mehdipournejad has seen neither his Iranian parents nor siblings for six years since they advised him to remain in Germany — on Wednesday the taekwondo specialist will make them proud as the flag bearer for the Refugee Team at the European Games.

Mehdipournejad thinks it could be a dream debut for him as gold is not out of the question in the -80 kilogramme title at the Games in Poland when the action begins on Thursday.

The 30-year-old’s journey has not been the easiest — a trip to Germany in 2017 turned into something completely unexpected and led to him being separated from his close family.

“It was meant to be just a trip but then something happened in Iran that was family related,” he told AFP by phone shortly after being informed he would be carrying the flag for the Refugee Team at the Games that will take place in Krakow and 10 other towns until July 2.

“My family on my mother’s side are against the Islamic regime and we made a decision after talking with my parents for me to stay in Germany at that point,” Mehdipournejad added.

“They said the most important thing was I be safe in Germany and can continue a normal life and my career.”

He says that initially his new life was a daunting challenge in a country he barely knew.

“The first two years were really difficult. I had never been so far from my family,” he said.

“It was that difficult that I did not know whether I would stay in Germany forever.

“However, after that spell I made some friends and joined in with the community and things became much better.”

– ‘Shut voices down’ –

Despite having settled down Mehdipournejad is always wanting to know what is happening with his family back in Iran — though he is unsure he ever gets the full picture.

“That is the biggest challenge as I am not sure what the real situation is,” he said.

“I know that even if there was something that happened they do not inform me as they do not want to make me stressed, sad and mad.”

He may have enjoyed freedoms his family and friends lacked back home but the regime found a way to try and punish him through putting pressure on his wife Parisa, a talented athlete herself who won a taekwondo silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games.

“When we got married she was put under pressure by sports organisations and the government,” he said.

“But at the end thank God she could join me.

“However, the situation is getting worse and worse in Iran, everything is possible.

“The Islamic regime do not care about people if they want to shut voices down, whether it is my family or others they will do it immediately.”

Mehdipournejad qualified for the Iranian national team on several occasions but never represented them, so the Refugee Team has offered him an unexpected chance at international level.

“My German club supported me but it was too difficult for them to pay for my foreign trips due to a limited budget,” he said.

“However, I learned of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refugee scholarship programme. I applied in October or November 2018 and they began to support me in 2019.

“Without their support this would not have been possible.”

Mehdipournejad — who says Parisa and his mother Roya, who has always “been on my side and accompanied me to competitions and training”, are his role models — says he hopes to boost his family by competing at the greatest sporting show of all, the Olympics in Paris next year.

That is if they get to know about it.

“I used to talk to my parents and brothers sometimes twice a day,” he said.

“However, for nine months now the internet connection has been limited by the regime.

“They had a really tough time and they are getting old.

“I know when people become old they are more sensitive and it would make them happy if I qualify for the Olympic Games.

“A good result at the Olympic Games would be the best way to make them feel good.”

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