The first Afghan Paralympian

When 14-year-old Mareena Karim’s moment came, the double amputee from Afghanistan ran her heart out at the Athens Paralympic 100m heats yesterday. She lost, badly, but spectators and the media had already declared her very presence a victory. «Of course she wanted to do better in the race,» said Kristian Marji Norheim, a 27-year-old Norwegian physiotherapist who works as a volunteer with disabled athletes in Afghanistan and was instrumental in getting the Afghan delegation to Athens. «But from my perspective, she is the real champion here today.» Mareena, flushed with the effort, moved into the press area just after her race. A little girl dwarfed by seasoned athletes, she stood awkwardly in front of a phalanx of journalists and television cameras wearing a baseball cap back to front, unable to speak any language but her own and unsure of what to do. And then, once safely in the arms of a teammate, she burst into tears and buried her face in her hands, overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment. «It’s a golden chance. Just my participating is a victory,» she finally said after composing herself, her words translated from Dari by 19-year-old teammate Sharifa Ahmadi. «She is writing history,» said Norheim, standing by Mareena’s side. Her bravely contested 100-meter dash – accomplished in 18.85 agonizing seconds – was the first time an Afghan woman athlete had ever participated in the Paralympics. There are 1 million disabled people in Afghanistan, Norheim says, many of them with limbs shattered by land mines. Mareena’s disability was the result of a severe burn during infanthood, causing her to lose half of her right foot and all of the toes on her left foot. When she was medically examined upon her arrival in Athens to determine her classification, she discovered that she was more disabled than she realized, suffering from decreased mobility in her lower legs. In Afghanistan, Mareena lives in Kabul – in what the delegation’s chief of mission, Doctor Abdul Bashir, describes as a «ruined house» – with her family, including 10 brothers and eight sisters. Unable to attend school under the hardline Islamic Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001 because she was a girl, she has since returned to the classroom. «I want to be a doctor when I am older,» she says. «And also a good athlete.» (AFP)

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