Iraq's 'special athletes' go for gold
With two gold medals to her name already, Iraqi badminton player Heba Asghar is more determined than ever as she prepares for next year's Special Olympics for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Still only aged 23 now, Asghar won a gold at the 2015 games in the United States as well as in Greece four years earlier.
And in March, Asghar, who has Down syndrome, will fly the Iraqi flag again at the Special Olympics World Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi.
Flicking through magazines featuring her daughter's feats, Asghar's mother, Souad, said that sport had marked a turning point.
"She was never stable, she was aggressive with family members," she said, at their Baghdad home.
Then at the age of 10, Asghar started playing table tennis, winning a silver medal at the Special Olympics in Japan, before finding her niche in badminton.
"She worked hard and thanks to that, she overcame her disability, she became a champion and that made her proud," her mother said.
Her 2015 gold medal victory at the Los Angeles summer Special Olympics earned her a monthly $600 (514-euro) grant from the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Smiling next to a table covered in her awards and newspaper clippings of her achievements, she dreams of more medals to come.
- Scant support -
At a sports hall for disabled athletes in the Iraqi capital, 17-year-old Dhai Wadi is also preparing for the March 2019 tournament in Abu Dhabi.
At the last regional Special Olympics in March this year, held in the United Arab Emirates capital too, Dhai, who also has Down syndrome, won gold in the 25-metre sprint and silver in the 50 metres.
"When Dhai started three years ago, she did swimming, but finally she found herself in the sprint," said her father, Ali.
"We hope she picks up the same medals in the World Games, and we will do everything to make her get there," he said.
The 60-year-old has retired from the health sector and now looks after his daughter, who goes to a publicly funded school.
But, he said, "unlike most other countries where young people with mental disabilities are taken care of, nothing is provided for them (in Iraq), not even specialised vehicles to take them to training".
Asghar's father, also aged 60, said years of conflict and the country's attempts at rebuilding had squeezed public funds and left the disabled with scant financial support.
There are no official figures for the number of people with Down syndrome in Iraq, and "no medicines are available" for the genetic disorder, said Salah Asghar.
- 'You are a champion' -
Nevertheless, Iraqi athletes came home with a total of 52 medals at this year's regional Special Olympics, which gathered competitors from 31 nations.
As well as badminton, Iraqi competitors also won medals in swimming, basketball, athletics and bocce, a game similar to bowls.
Essam al-Khafaji, who set up the Iraqi team, said the athletes were "determined to learn and to go beyond their disability".
After regular training, "they grow more independent", said Khafaji.
On all the walls of the sports centre where the athletes train, the team's slogan reads: "Let me win, and if I don't, let me show my courage in trying."
Among those training for the Special Olympics is Ali, a 24-year-old also living in Baghdad who has twice undergone heart surgery.
At the last regional Special games in March, he won a gold medal in bocce.
Now, with a smile permanently on his face even if he has difficulty in expressing himself, Ali is aiming for more success at the 2019 Special Olympics, at which some 7,000 athletes from 177 countries are to compete in 24 disciplines.
Hussein Ali, 20, who won a gold in athletics in Abu Dhabi, is proud of his achievement. "My mother and my father helped me become a champion," he said.
- Everyday hurdles -
However, despite the impressive haul of medals, the greatest challenge for the champions, like other mentally disabled people in Iraq, often remains at home and in everyday life.
"There are people who help young people with mental disabilities and support them, but unfortunately in Iraqi society there are also those who don't understand," Asghar's mother told AFP.
Studies show that a large majority of Iraqis are opposed to children with Down syndrome attending public schools.
"Often, when we go out with Heba, people move out of her way as if they're afraid. So she asks me, a bit naively, 'Why do they do that?'" said Souad.
"Sometimes she cries, but I say to her: 'You are better than them, you are a champion.'"
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