Introducing Abere Kassw Belay and Kasra Mehdipournejad - IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders

Marathon runner Kassw Belay and taekwondo player Mehdipournejad have experience contrasting journeys after fleeing their homelands. Now they are targeting Tokyo 2020.

By Rory Jiwani

Abere Kassw Belay and Kasra Mehdipournejad are both hoping to make their Olympic debuts at Tokyo 2020 as part of the second Refugee Olympic Team.

Long-distance runner Kassw Belay was born in Ethiopia and opted to stay in Australia and seek asylum rather than return home in 2017.

He is hoping to follow the lead of Luxembourg-based Ethiopian refugee Yonas Kinde who competed at Rio 2016 and is hoping to run again in Japan.

Mehdipournejad was an Iranian national taekwondo champion before fleeing his homeland for Germany in 2017.

The 28-year-old has shown his ability in tournaments in Europe at -74kg, but he will need to move up to -80kg for May's European Olympic Qualifier in Sofia where he has a chance of booking his place in Tokyo.

Abere Kassw Belay

Country of origin: Ethiopia

Host country: Australia

Date of birth: 8 December 1994

Sport: Athletics (marathon)

Kassw grew up on a farm in Gondor, and it was not until he was 15 that his running talents were spotted.

After representing his school in regional long-distance events, he went on to train with the Ethiopian national cross-country and road teams in Addis Ababa.

In 2014, he set a personal best of 2:08:18 in finishing eighth at the Dubai Marathon.

He then had a good second place in the 2016 Zurich Marathon before winning the inaugural Dakar Marathon in April 2017.

Months later, Kassw was in Melbourne to try and improve on his third place from 2014. 

News of trouble back in Ethiopia persuaded him to pull out of the race and he decided not to return home.

While seeking asylum, he and fellow Ethiopian refugee Fasika Metafriya were taken on by coach Frances Lipscombe, and won the men's and women's races at the Geelong Half Marathon the following April.

Kassw soon found a full-time job in his new home, but a workplace accident saw him lose a finger and he now has only limited use of his left hand.

Despite having to take close to two years off to recover from that injury, he remains committed to achieving his dream of competing at the Olympic Games.

Kasra Mehdipournejad

Country of origin: Iran

Host country: Germany

Date of birth: 26 December 1992

Sport: Taekwondo (-80kg)

Mehdipournejad has been practising taekwondo since the age of 13 with the aim of emulating Iran's double Olympic champion Hadi Saei.

He was previously a member of the Iranian national team, before successfully applying for asylum in Germany.

He trains under Sven Forscher at Berlin's TVBB Elite Club.

Mehdipournejad speaks every day to his best friend Milad Beigi who also grew up in Iran, and now competes for Azerbaijan. He won -80kg bronze at Rio 2016.

And the tall martial artist has inspiration even closer to home with his wife, Parisa Farshidi, a silver medallist in taekwondo at the 2010 Asian Games.

Also difficult is the lack of competition with the 28-year-old unable to build on the momentum of his emphatic Polish Open title victory in September 2019.

He said, "At first I thought it was good. I was able to let my injuries heal, work on technique, but now…”

Mehdipournejad has had to make do with attending training camps, and enjoyed one in December with the Polish national team.

Mehdipournejad has aspirations of representing Germany at Paris 2024, and opening a taekwondo club with his wife in Berlin.

But for now, he has his sights set on May's European Olympic qualification tournament in Sofia and trying to make Tokyo 2020 as part of the second Refugee Olympic Team.