Alia Issa will fulfill her father’s dream when she leads the six-athlete Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT) to the Tokyo Paralympics. The 20-year-old is the first female refugee Paralympian and will be the flagbearer for the team alongside swimmer Abbas Karimi. The duo will lead the contingent at the Tokyo Paralympics opening ceremony.
When Issa came to know of it during a press conference today, she said:
"I'm very proud of that and very happy - I never believed I'd be here for the RPT and I never believed I would be flying the flag for the RPT and I'm very nervous. I never believed I would be in the Paralympic Games once in my life and I can’t believe I'm the first woman. It's a big tournament.”
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) allows female and male flagbearers as part of its gender equity policy.
Who is Alia Issa?
Born in Greece to a Syrian refugee, Alia Issa will compete in women’s club throw at the Tokyo Paralympics 2021. She qualified for the quadrennial event after finishing fourth in the club throw event at the 2021 World Para Athletics European Championships.
Alia Issa is hoping to provide an example to young women with disabilities and other female refugees about how sport can open up a world of possibilities.
“My father taught me to dream big and actually his dream was for me to become a doctor,” she told Paralympics through a translator.
Her, Mohament Issa, left Syria for Greece in 1996 in search of a better life for his family. He lived alone for four years, working as a tailor until he made enough money to bring his wife and four children to live with him.
When Alia Issa was four, her life took an unexpected turn. After contracting smallpox, she suffered brain damage following a dangerously high fever. It left her in a wheelchair with high support needs along with speaking difficulties.
When she went to primary school, Alia was subjected to bullying by her classmates and would often feel left out.
“I was bullied by some of the kids. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to go to school. I liked school a lot,” she said.
Speaking about the lengths her parents went to help her deal with her personal issues, Alia Issa’s mother Fatima Najjar said:
“Some of the children gave her a very rough time because of her speech problems and her disability. Her father and I did everything in our means to support her so she could achieve big things in her life. We got her a speech therapist at home and physical therapy sessions outside the house.”
Crediting her husband with inspiring a young Alia to pay no regard to the hurdles and trudge on, Fatima said:
“He would tell her, ‘Don’t worry. Work really hard and you will achieve anything you want.’ That’s where the dream of her becoming a doctor started.”
A big turning point in Alia Issa's life
Alia Issa's big turning point came when she joined what is known as a lower secondary school in Greece. She would finally be attending a school reserved only for students with disabilities. She said:
“I didn’t feel different anymore. At my primary school, I was the only one with a disability.”
It was there that she was introduced to sports. Speaking about how it empowered her, Alia said:
“Being introduced to sport three years ago was very important to me. I felt stronger and more confident with my body and mobility.”
Michalis Nikopoulos, one of the physical education teachers at that school, is now one of her coaches. He met Alia Issa when she was 16 and took her to his sports club, the Tyrtaios Sports Club for the disabled. Speaking during the press conference, Nikopoulos said:
“My goal is to find the young talented new athletes to take to my club. When I spotted her at my school, I thought she could be a good athlete.”
At first, Alia Issa tried boccia, among other sports. But Nikopoulos identified that she had natural strength and introduced her to club throw.
Club throw is a para-athletics discipline for those who do not possess a grip strong enough for javelin, shot put or discus. It involves holding a club that looks like a bowling pin, made of wood. The athletes sit in a wheelchair or a platform, aim and toss the club as far as they can. It can be thrown forwards, backwards, even sideways depending on their disability.
Alia Issa is happy to be in Tokyo but wants to become a doctor, something her father had always envisioned. But for now, she just thinks of how her father would feel about her if he was alive.
“He would be very proud and very happy. I think about that a lot,” says Alia Issa, who lost her father due to cancer.
Her mother knows exactly what her late husband would have told his daughter:
“He would tell her ‘You are achieving your dreams and I hope you achieve a lot more of those dreams in the future’,” said Fatima.