For years, Afghan refugees born in Pakistan who became sportsmen went on to represent Pakistan internationally. But in the last decade, thousands of sportsmen trained on Pakistani greens and in Durand Line dojos
Afghan national cricket team batsmen Karim Saadiq recalls his time as a child learning to play cricket beside a refugee camp. (Photo: Karim Saadiq archive) Main photo: Afghan and Pakistani Karate teams in a joint practice session in 2000. (Photo: Quraishi)
For Afghans who lived as refugees in Pakistan, the cricket field by the sprawling Kacha Gari refugee settlement reminds them of the bittersweet time of growing up in exile.
Nearly three million Afghan refugees have lived or still live in Pakistan, according to UNHCR. Most drowned the sorrows of a life away from home on cricket fields. Some even went on to become stars.
From camps to cupwinners
“My brothers and I would search for cricket all day long and would only return home at night,” recalls Karim Saadiq, an Afghan national team player who grew up in Pakistan. "When we got home we would sneak into our house like thieves, because our dad would get really angry. Nobody was willing to get married to us either - they would say we had no career prospects,” recalls Saadiq.
But in Saadiq's case, the clandestine cricketing paid off handsomely: The Afghan side he is part of recently qualified for the 2015 World Cup after a steady rise to prominence over several years.
Aspiring Afghan sportsmen hopeful of emulating Saadiq’s rise to the top often come to Peshawar’s Jimkhana ground to train with some of Afghanistan’s national team players.
“The weather in Kabul is cold now and we cannot practice there,” says 17-year-old Zia-ur-Rehman, a young hopeful from the capital who is spending the winter at a hotel in Peshawar to boost his chances of making it to the national team some day.
While relations in politics remain tense, sports continue to create bonds between both countries. “Pakistan is the first home to Afghan cricket players,” says Taib Akhondzada, chairman of the Afghan Cricket Federation in Eastern Afghanistan.
“All of our cricket players learned cricket there, and it is because they were trained in Pakistan that they are capable of playing in international matches."
Which flag to fly?
Despite the strain placed on both countries by decades of conflict and displacement, the continuous migration has helped sports sectors develop in both countries.
Afghan youngsters have found their feet in cricket grounds, dojos and football pitches across the Durand Line, often taking the experience back across the border. But it is Pakistan that has often benefited the most as those athletes go on to represent Pakistan internationally.
Political trophy cabinet: Afghan Taekwando fighter Khushal Quraishi represented Pakistan internationally but has also represented Afghanistan in local regional tournaments. (Photo: Private)
Salih Mohammed, an Afghan snooker player, won several championships for Pakistan before returning to his homeland, allegedly with intention of establishing an academy.
Khushal Quraishi was a 12-year-old Afghan refugee when he arrived in Pakistan and began to learn Taekwando. Quraishi went on to become an Asian champion under Pakistan’s flag at the Asian Kyokushin Kaikan Championship.
“I fought all the international games as a Pakistani athlete,” Quraishi told Afghanistan Today. “However, on the national level, particularly, on a provincial level, I would play as an Afghan athlete, and have won numerous games so far."
Quraishi says he would do more to develop Taekwando in Afghanistan, like Olympic medal-winner Rohullah Nikpai, but that the authorities are not interested in his achievements.
"I had a training club in Peshawar's Board Bazar and I coached thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis, but when I returned to my country Afghanistan, nobody cared about me,” says Quraishi, who is a doctor and poet by trade.
In Jackie Chan's footsteps
Inspired by Jackie Chan, Afghan boy Abuzar Abdullah is also intent on bagging his share of titles. The seven-year-old is already the Kata Provincial Karate Champion in his age, group and division, and is at the vanguard of young Afghans competing in martial arts.
And the competition is growing all the time among his fellow Afghans. The Pakistan Full Contact Karate Federation Secretary General Sahibzada al-Hadi says Afghans train in at least 23 registered centres in Pakistan and excel in all martial arts disciplines.
“Afghan players are stronger physically than Pakistani fighters,” believes Hadi. “Afghans are sharp in their technique”
A bone of contention between both countries, or especially amongst Afghans, is how many Afghan-born athletes have gone on to represent Pakistan. But in recent years many Afghan sportsmen and women who grew up in Pakistan have come home with a new outlook. Afghan sports authorities have responded by investing in infrastructure, albeit slowly.
Stumped where to play
Simorgh Alborz face Toofan Harirod in the inaugural APL final in Kabul in 2012. (Photo: Alex Macbeth)
"Building grounds for our players in Kabul and other provinces is a necessity,” says Afghan National Olympic Committee (NOC) spokesman Moujibullah Rahmani. “We have an international cricket stadium in Nangarhar, which was built with two million dollars. In Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, and Balkh provinces we have facilities and playing grounds for cricket, football, and other similar sports," he lists. "But our only challenge is that we do not have professional and foreign trainers. If we overcome this challenge, we will further develop.”
But even this issue is proving to be another sporting bridge between the two countries. The current Afghan national team coach, Kabir Khan, is a Pakistani, as was former coach and Pakistan international test batsman and wicketkeeper Rashid Latif.
The start of the Afghan Premier League (APL) has helped football develop in Afghanistan too. And again many of the seeds were planted in Pakistan. In the second ever APL in 2013, Afghan refugees born in Pakistan were invited to take part in live TV trials for teams. Throughout the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, many Afghan refugees in Pakistan formed football or cricket teams. Cricket was the first sport to be 'unbanned' under a slight relaxation of the Taliban's rules in 2000.
Encore! for departed Afghans
When the regime fell the next year, Afghans began to return home to build their own sporting traditions and were sorely missed by hardcore sports followers in Peshawar. Javid Iqbal, a football fan, used to regularly go to Tahmah Khan stadium in Peshawar to watch Afghan teams play.
“When the Afghans teams left, the ground was never full and there was a big gap,” says Iqbal, who has not been to a match for the last eight years.
But Pakistani sports journalist Amjad Aziz Malik notes that one nation’s loss is another’s gain: “The young generation of Afghan refugees have a lot of sporting talent and they can do much for their country.”