Aker Al-Obaidi: from ISIS-occupied Mosul to Tokyo Olympics

Meet Aker Al-Obaidi: the Iraqi refugee wrestler who fled ISIS and is now competing in the Tokyo Olympics
3 min read
Olympic wrestling hopeful Aker Al Obaidi had to flee his home city Mosul, Iraq, after ISIS took control and began recruiting young men his age. Unaware of where he was headed and that one day he would end up as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
Aker Al Obaidi [Getty Images]

Aker Al Obaidi was six years old when he began wrestling for the first time. He had no idea that this sport would one day be his ticket to a new life.

At first, Obaidi wrestled for fun, but he soon proved to show great potential. As he began to win junior championships, his talent attracted the attention of other countries which looked to recruit him. However, his wrestling journey was to be cut short. As soon as he turned 14 years old, ISIS seized control of the city of Mosul where he lived.

When ISIS started recruiting boys around his age, he took the hard decision to flee the country. In an interview with the official Olympic website, Obaidi says: 

“I didn’t want to leave, but I had to. It was a very scary experience. I didn’t know where I was going or where I would end up. I was scared for my family that were in the war. I then thought I had to look after myself. The whole situation was extremely difficult mentally.”

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A new life in Europe

The Olympic website interview had shed light on the plight of Obaidi, who had now left Mosul to settle in Europe and had been granted refugee status in Austria. 

Following his arrival, Obaidi enrolled in a middle school where he grasped the basics of the German language, however, without the support of his family he struggled with establishing a new life for himself. 

Obaidi notes: “There are many difficult things about being a refugee. Filling in forms and visas, and going to the government to prove that you should have the right to stay in the country - all of this is hard, especially when it is not in your mother tongue”.

Obaidi returned to the wrestling mat in search of happiness and to reconnect to the sport he had always loved, he soon discovered that wrestling was still his natural gift and decided to train full time. 

After two years his trainer Benedikt Ernst convinced him to move to Inzing, a small mountain town, to continue his training, where his talent soon started attracting local clubs.

When speaking of his experience in Austria, Obaidi says: “I love Austria - it is a very beautiful country. The food is amazing, and I love the mountains. I feel as though I am in my second home. Playing sports and being a sportsperson has helped me settle in this country. My talent has opened up many doors and made me many friends in wrestling".

His dream - to compete in the Tokyo Olympics

After some outstanding performances in the international junior wrestling competitions, Obaidi drew the 5 Olympic circles on one of the walls of his house, to act as a daily reminder of his goal: to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In 2019, he took a huge step towards achieving his dream when he secured the International Olympic Committee grant for refugee athletes, which has provided him with much needed funding and training to support his efforts to compete in the Olympic Games.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here.

This article is part of The New Arab's special coverage of the Tokyo Olympics. Click here to read the whole series.