Iraqi wheelchair tennis thrives in wake of war
As a girl, Zainab Khadim Alwan cut school to watch American
tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams play, imagining herself some
day becoming just like them.
Even the rocket that blew off her legs four years ago hasn’t
dampened her desire to play the game. It’s just that she now does
so in a wheelchair.
Alwan is among a growing number of young Iraqis who have turned
to competitive sports to learn to live with the physical scars and
emotional trauma of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and sectarian
bloodshed it unleashed. It’s not easy in a country still suffering
from daily violence, and limited help for handicapped people. Alwan
and others like her are determined to persevere.
”I choose tennis because it’s a difficult game,” Alwan said.
”I wanted to prove despite losing my legs, I haven’t lost my
About 2,000 Iraqi athletes with disabilities compete in
swimming, track and field, fencing, volleyball, shooting,
weight-lifting and tennis. More than 20 percent lost their arms and
legs in suicide bombings, shooting attacks, roadside bomb
explosions and as a result of mortar or rocket fire, according to
”It was one minute and it all changed,” Alwan said, recalling
the day she lost both legs.
That was in 2006, and her 10 brothers and sisters, her parents,
nieces and nephews gathered in the house to celebrate the end of
the holy month of Ramadan. Fighting between Shiite and Sunni
militias for political dominance was raging across Baghdad, killing
dozens of innocent civilians each day on both sides of the
The family was talking when rockets started to rain down. The
first fell near the house. The second landed in their backyard. The
third hit their house. Everyone fled as the home collapsed, seeking
safety in the front yard. It was there that the fourth rocket
”Those rockets, (they fell) as if they were following us,”
Alwan said wiping tears off her face with one hand and gently
stroking her tennis racket in the other. ”I lost consciousness for
a few seconds, then I woke up and saw both my legs were gone.”
She almost gave up on life after the attack that killed her
sister and sister-in-law. She dropped out of school, endured eight
surgeries and distanced herself from her family, friends and
”I could not cope with reality and for a long time I tried to
convince myself it was all a bad dream,” Alwan said. With the
support of her brothers and her father, who refused to go with the
social flow of hiding their disabled sister and daughter from the
outside world, Alwan got fed up with despair, joined a club and
signed up for the sport she liked before the attack.
”Tennis relieved Zainab’s suffering,” said her father, Kadhim
With Iraq’s violence down from its mid-decade peaks, Iraq’s
sports clubs have stepped up efforts to show a new generation of
disabled athletes that they can still train, compete and
”We try to convince the handicapped people that it’s not the
end of the world and that life with disability has a lot of
potential,” said Ahmed Flaih Ajaj, president of Al-Thura Sports
Club, specifically created in 2003 for handicapped athletes.
The club now has 100 athletes playing basketball, track and
field, fencing, table tennis, tennis, weight lifting, swimming and
The athletes are mostly young and predominantly male, Ajaj said,
adding most struggle emotionally before embracing life with
disability. ”We offer some counseling, but mostly try to convince
the handicapped people that sports is the best way to regain
physical strength, overcome isolation and start winning again,”
Alwan now walks with artificial legs she covers with long,
colorful skirts. She practices tennis three days a week and hasn’t
missed a single training session in two years. She trains in a club
with nine men, most of whom also lost their legs in attacks. They
take off their artificial limbs, line them up against the metal
fence at the tennis court behind Baghdad’s biggest soccer stadium
and use wheelchairs to play tennis.
Of 11 players on Iraq’s wheelchair tennis national team, Alwan
is the only woman, although there are other women who play around
the country in wheelchairs. She won the national title twice, in
2008 and 2009, and in May marked her first international success in
a tournament in Turkey, finishing third.
”After 2003 a new generation of crippled athletes began to
emerge,” said Qahtan Tayeh al-Naeimi, the president of the Iraqi
National Paralympic Committee.
The generation before them was made up of veterans of the
Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. The reintegration into society of those
who lost their limbs on the Iran front was a priority for Saddam
Hussein after the eight-year war, turning Iraq into one of the
Middle East’s most advanced countries in dealing with
Rehabilitation centers and sports clubs mushroomed around the
country in an attempt to integrate veterans into society and the
work force. Tennis – Saddam’s favorite sport – was especially
Iraq’s wheelchair tennis players have benefited from a two-year
program by the sport’s international governing body to develop
wheelchair tennis in Iraq, providing training and supplying
athletes with tennis equipment, including specially designed
wheelchairs for the game.
But Iraqi officials who work with handicapped athletes today say
the biggest problem is not the social stigma, lack of funding, or
continued violence but the fact that they rarely can attend
competitions in Europe and the United States because athletes are
Only six of 16 athletes on the volleyball team were issued visas
to attend the Wheelchair Volleyball Championship in the U.S.,
sparking an official complaint by Iraq to the sport’s governing
”How long are they going to treat Iraqi athletes as terrorists
while they are victims of terrorism?” said Karim Abdel Hussein,
the president of Iraq’s Wheelchair Tennis Federation that was
established in 2003 and joined the International Tennis Federation
two years later.
Alwan and another top player chosen to participate in a
tournament in London earlier this year could not go because the
British government refused to issue them visas, Hussein said.
For Alwan, training abroad and competing in an international
tournament were huge confidence boosts that prompted her to go back
to school and even reconsider undergoing more surgery she’d been
”I’ll do it, if will make my game better,” she said. ”I am
determined to win an international tournament one day.”
Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed, Bushra Juhi and Sameer N.
Yacoub contributed to this story.