Fighters having the opportunity compete in their home state or hometown isn’t a new concept in MMA by any means. But for two fighters and a coach in Abu Dhabi this week, traveling to the Middle East for this upcoming card is not only special, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
While former Ultimate Fighter finalist Ramsey Nijem didn’t grow up overseas, he heard plenty of stories about his family’s survival to make it to the United States after leaving Palestine more than 20 years ago. Nijem’s father actually grew up in a refugee camp in the area before making his way to the U.S. where his son was born.
Even though he didn’t visit his homeland until later in life, Nijem was instilled with knowledge about where he came from at a very early age.
"When I was growing up, my dad was always pushing letting us know we are Palestinian, we were little kids and we used to go to rallies and things like that. So I’ve grown up my whole life with that fire and that passion," Nijem told FOX Sports. "It’s not like I’m that far removed. I was blessed to be born in the United States, but my dad made sure that we knew that and he took us to Palestine to show us the refugee camps where he came from and where our cousins still live, and where they died."
Most children grow up without a working knowledge of international politics or understanding how warring factions can literally tear a country apart at the seams. Nijem is very thankful that his father and mother chose to raise him in the U.S., but he was also taught very young in life that he should appreciate what he has versus where he could have been brought up if things had been different.
"My dad growing up, we’d have these long discussions and as a kid I knew a lot about international affairs," Nijem explained. "I’ve always had a passion for it, and I’ve always known what was going on, and when I traveled there it showed me how blessed I really am to be born in the States and how much different my life could have been if I was born one generation off."
Nijem’s opponent this Friday at UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi may want to beat him once the Octagon door closes, but Iranian born lightweight Beneil Dariush can certainly sympathize with the feelings he’ll have competing in the Middle East for the first time.
Beneil Dariush hasn’t been home to Iran since he was 17
Dariush grew up in Iran for most of his formative years, but left the country when he was 17 and to this day he’s never returned home. Now that he’s fighting in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates — a country that sits just across the Persian Gulf from Iran — he can’t help but to be a little overwhelmed by this situation.
"My family in Iran, they’re only an hour away with the plane. I might actually get to see some of my family that’s coming over to see the fight. I haven’t been able to go to Iran because of the military service, it’s mandatory once you turn 18, so I haven’t been to Iran since I was 17," Dariush said when speaking with FOX Sports. "I’m ecstatic, I’m excited, I can’t wait to go."
The unique nature of this trip extends beyond even the fighters in this lightweight bout because Tareq Azim, head trainer for Ramsey Nijem, hails from Afghanistan, a country he left as a kid only to return after college to help the people evolve and progress by introducing social programs and sports to the youth there. It’s a passion that Azim has carried with him for more than a decade now, and as he travels back to the area to help one of his fighters get ready for a bout, he’s touched at the amount of good that can come from the kids in that area seeing someone just like them succeed in a promotion as big as the UFC.
It’s this kind of hope that gets lost by some of the children growing up in countries like Afghanistan, Palestine or Iran when the political and military climates can be volatile at best, and the chance to succeed seems almost impossible.
"Those kids and those adults have lost something very special and it’s called belief," Azim explained. "They’ve lost belief and self ability as a nation. A lot of those countries are in turmoil and all of that is out of their control, so they feel like there’s no one ever in their interest. It’s difficult for them to build the confidence that they can do anything to change it.
"I think them seeing us, and hopefully Ramsey going out there and putting on the best performance of his life, will showcase that we’re no different than you are. The opportunities that we had, you had, we forced this life upon ourselves. We created an alternative for ourselves."
Carrying his heritage into a fight is something Nijem has done many times before this visit to Abu Dhabi, but he’ll certainly be mindful of it now more than ever with this fight in front of him.
Just telling his father that he was going to get the chance to fight there brought tears to his eyes, and a sense of pride in his son. Palestine’s ‘star’ is coming home, and Nijem couldn’t be happier to be there and truly relish this moment.
"My dad cried when he heard I was fighting in Abu Dhabi. That’s how big of a deal it is to my family," Nijem said. "I’m really excited for it and I’m going to put everything I have out there. I’m very proud and I really feel a strong obligation to represent the Palestinian people. It’s kind of nice to be a shining star for the people, and my last name Nijem means star, that’s literally the translation of my last name, so it’s time to live up to it."