Dedicated to football and to help the refugee children in Iran to better their life, Rozma Ghafouri has been chosen as the regional winner for Asia for UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to the extra ordinary lengths to help forcibly displaced or stateless people.
For Rozma, sports is what she has found in helping children in vulnerable situation to open up. This 29-year-old is not just the team coach but a fellow Afghan. She draws on her own at times harsh childhood to get young refugees and undocumented Afghans aged between 11 and 15 out of work and back into school. “Sport is the best way I have found to. After every practice, I speak to them about everything and anything until they feel comfortable to talk to me about the issues they are facing at home,” she says.
Stating that she used to see Afghan children working instead of playing and wearing used work clothes instead of being in uniforms and not smiling, she said that she felt that smile could be brought to their lips again through sports. This led her to establish the Youth Initiative Fund in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s southern city of Shiraz in 2015 to help at-risk children.
Rozma and her family fled Afghanistan 23 years ago. After working as a labourer for much of her childhood, she founded the Youth Initiative Fund that now helps some 400 children a year, many of them out-of-school girls, through inclusion in sports and social activities, enrollment in literacy and numeracy courses and counselling with their families. In her goal to bring the children to sports, she says that she faced many hurdles. She points out that it was difficult to convince parents who are just thinking of how to give food to their children. While both boys and girls must often work to help their families, girls face the added challenge of cultural norms.
Coming to her childhood and her hardships, Rozma was just six years old when Taliban overran her hometown in the province of Kapisa. She had to flee the country with her parents. In Iran, she was safe, but during her first years in exile, the family barely had enough to live on.. She remembers that the old days in Iran when she feared that she won’t be able to go to school like other children as she had no money for it. She and her siblings worked hard in fields and also at a brick factory. But her thoughts were always for sports. “All I wanted to do was play football, but I was not allowed as i was a girl,” she says. “My father would say that girls are not mad instead I should learn to sew.” But now she coaches children.