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

Iraqi officials.

”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

sectarian divide.

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

Alwan Jassim.

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,”

Ajaj said.

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

denied visas.

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.