BAKU, Azerbaijan (May 30, 2023) - It is the dream of any Taekwondo athlete to compete at a World Championships. But for refugee athlete Yehya Al Ghotani, his participation here at the Baku 2023 World Taekwondo Championships feels extra special given the unimaginably difficult circumstances he has overcome to get here.
Al Ghotani, one of seven children, had no choice but to leave his home in Syria in search of safety when the war broke out. Like many Syrian refugees, he and his family ended up in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan where he lives to this day. It was in Azraq that he discovered Taekwondo as he began training with the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) which was established in 2016. In 2018 the THF launched the Taekwondo Humanitarian Centre in Azraq which has around 100 practicing athletes and 70 black belts.
Fast forward to present day and Al Ghotani is one of 13 refugee athletes competing at the World Championships but the only athlete from the Azraq camp.
“Since the first day when we started THF school in Jordan in the refugee camp, I was one of the first athletes. When I received a nice hall to train in, uniform and a professional coach to train me I’ve been very happy,” said Al Ghotani.
“The first time I trained in my first class I loved it even though it’s hard and I thought this can make me stronger and make me feel more confident in myself.”
Despite the fact Al Ghotani had never practised Taekwondo before, he showed a natural ability for the sport. It was not long before he began to aspire for the highest levels.
“It was my dream since I was a white belt when I started, to see all the famous players around the world. To now participate in the World Championships is a big achievement. I’m very happy to be here and to see everybody from different backgrounds of the world and all the famous players. It’s a hard competition. Any fight in a World Championships is hard as everyone prepares but I am happy to be here.”
This is the second international competition Al Ghotani has participated in following his participation in the Fujairah Open and now a recipient of the IOC Scholarship for Refugee Athletes for Paris 2024 he is making a name for himself in the sport but also back home.
“I received some videos from refugees in Azraq to encourage me for the competition. When I go back I will tell everyone about my experience,” added Al Ghotani. I want everyone to have hope that if I have had the chance to be in the World Championships others will have the chance again. There is hope for every refugee in Azraq to come to the World Championships.”
Al Ghotani’s passion to inspire others is clear and he also wants to use his position to shine a light on the daily hardships refugees are facing around the world. Just this week his family were forced out of their home in the Azraq camp after it flooded.
“I go through a hard life. Taekwondo is working hard and they’re looking after us,” he says. But now I have the chance to meet with people from the media I can explain the situation in the refugee camp and what we go through to the world.”
If Al Ghotani fulfil his Olympic ambitions then his platform to generate awareness of the refugee crisis will only grow further.
“My goal is to be in the Olympic Games one day. Now my goal is to prepare to try and qualify for Paris but if I don’t have the chance for Paris I will keep working hard for Los Angeles.”
Irrespective of Olympic qualification there is no questioning the impact Taekwondo has had on Al Ghotani. World Taekwondo President Choue conducted a donation ceremony where KPNP equipment was gifted to Al Ghotani at the competition venue, Crystal hall. But the greatest benefits Taekwondo has brought are not tangible.
“The main benefits are discipline and confidence. It makes me respect the time as for training I have to be on time. Even more than school, taekwondo has taught me discipline. And to be disciplined and listen to the coach and respect other competitors. During the game I fight hard but when the game has finished I respect the other players,” he says.
“For me Taekwondo is changing my life.”