At the Tokyo Paralympics, Alia Issa will become the first woman to compete as a member of the Paralympic Refugee team. She will also serve as a flagbearer during Tuesday’s Opening Ceremony.
Issa, who was born in Greece in 2001 to Syrian refugees, competes in the club throw, a track & field event.
“It [took] a lot of hard training and sacrificing,” Issa told On Her Turf through a translator earlier this month. “I’m really excited for it.”
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, the sole woman on the inaugural Paralympic Refugee team, hopes to make an impact in her Paralympic debut.
“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,” she told On Her Turf. “If you have a disability, that should not hold you back. You can still achieve great things through hard work.”
In Issa’s case, she has also had to endure prejudice and discrimination, including at her primary school in Greece.
“The kids there were really harsh and I got bullied a lot,” she said. “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.”
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.
“Throughout this process I saw big changes with my disability,” Issa said. “I saw a lot of improvement with my movements… my coordination and everything regarding my disability.”
Issa now trains at Tyrtaios Sports Club for the Disabled in Athens, where she is coached by Dionysios Koumparis. Shortly after they started working together, Koumparis suggested that Issa switch her throwing style to throw backwards instead of forwards.
“And the results were excellent,” Koumparis said.
Issa was born in Greece, has spent almost the entirety of her life in the country, and receives support from the Hellenic Paralympic Committee – including transportation to and from the club where she trains.
Still, she is still not a Greek citizen. Greece, unlike the United States, does not offer birthright citizenship.
“It’s really complicated for someone who is not brought up by Greek parents to get citizenship,” she said. “My dream is to participate in a big event – maybe the Paralympic Games – wearing the blue and white shirt representing the Greek colors.”
She is not the first athlete to struggle with obtaining Greek citizenship.
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.
“He’s my idol because he also [came] from another country as an immigrant,” Issa said of Antetokounmpo. “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.”
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC
How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics
NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:
- Live television coverage of the Opening Ceremony begins on Tuesday, August 24, at 7am ET on NBCSN.
- Live competition will get underway on Tuesday evening in the United States at 10pm ET.
- A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
- Evens can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.