US donations boost Afghan wrestling clubs in wake of militant attack
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 2019
KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of boys tossed and tumbled on the bright blue mats at the Nasir Ali Feroz Zada Wrestling Club one recent evening — mats bought with money originally donated by Americans to help a different Kabul wrestling club destroyed by a suicide attack last September.
Billed as a way to support Afghan youths, a campaign to raise funds for the bombed Maiwand Wrestling Club has been so successful over the past six months that it’s now helping to repair wrestling facilities like this one in other parts of the city.
“If you want to make the world a better place, it’s better to develop young kids than try to fix men,” said Hooman Tavakolian, 42, a New York investment manager and sports charity founder who launched the campaign on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, in a recent phone interview.
“So that’s our mission — to develop brighter futures. If it keeps kids from straying into organized crime and terrorist groups, it could help keep our servicemembers safe too,” said Tavakolian, a former college wrestler and coach, whose efforts were supported by USA Wrestling.
Boys as young as 4 four were among scores of people packed into the Feroz Zada club when Stars and Stripes visited in March. Some said they enrolled because of the refurbishment.
The club is in a poor neighborhood at the base of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill, under the shadow of a giant Afghan flag U.S. servicemembers often fly over in helicopters that crisscross the capital’s skies. It’s one of a dozen gyms affiliated with the Maiwand Wrestling Club, which had its gym bombed by the Islamic State last year.
“We were doing nothing wrong here, we were teaching people how to wrestle, how to be healthy and be a good person in the community,” said Ghulam Abbas, 52, a coach who has taught at the Maiwand gym for three decades. “We are building the community, but they are coming and killing us.”
On the day of the attack last September, Abbas held the steel-plated door so the attacker couldn’t enter the main room of the gym. The bomber then detonated his explosives opposite Abbas, witnesses said. The next thing the wrestling coach remembers is waking up at the hospital with his left arm missing.
The facility is in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi district, which is home to many ethnic Hazaras, a minority frequently targeted by the local ISIS affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan Province.
More than 20 were killed and dozens of others wounded after the ISIS suicide bomber shot the Maiwand gym’s door guard and then blew himself up. The ball bearings and rivets packed into the bomb embedded into the bodies and the concrete walls of the gym. A second suicide bomber targeted first responders.
In the weeks after the attack, Abbas said he was depressed and discouraged. But when the community began donating money and he heard that people in foreign countries also wanted to help, he became determined to reopen the gym.
The Maiwand Club gym was rebuilt and reopened in November with protective barriers installed.
While the Feroz Zada gym across town was never destroyed by terrorists, it was in desperate need of refurbishment, said Raza Ahmadi, 27, who manages all the Maiwand-affiliated gyms.
“The old mats were not up to standard,” Ahmadi said. “We had to fill them with anything soft we could find, like cotton, and guys often got hurt while wrestling.”
To show their appreciation for the American donations through Tavakolian’s charity Hoomanities, which paid for new mats and mat covers and helped to buy gym equipment and wrestling outfits, the club held a small ceremony last month.
Tavakolian, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran as a child during the Iran-Iraq war and later wrestled for New York’s Hunter College, created Hoomanities to empower young people around the world and “reinstate hope in humanity through sports,” the nonprofit’s website says.
Tavakolian has collected more donations, including wrestling gear provided by several American universities, which he’s still trying to get to Afghanistan to help more clubs, he said.
Such gyms help keep kids off the streets, where they could get into drugs or crime, Ahmadi said at the ceremony.
Staff, gym members and their families do worry about the possibility of future attack, Ahmadi said in an interview, “but if anything happens we’ll fight it and we’ll keep going.”
That sense of defiance could also exists at the Maiwand club.
“We’re not afraid of anything. If I have only one drop of blood in my body, I will work here and help the young people,” said Ahmad Zia, 27, an employee at the gym.
Zia’s cousin was among the dozens of wrestlers and coaches killed in the September attack.
The Maiwand club’s rebirth should serve as a reminder of the struggles many Afghans face while trying to live normal lives, and of the horrors that will continue as long as war does, said Abbas, the coach.
“For the last 40 years, I’ve seen so many problems in my country,” Abbas said. “During the civil war my house was hit by a rocket and my wife died. My cousins have died in this war. In Afghanistan there’s not a single family who is not affected by the war. But ... we should not lose hope.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.