Refugee Paralympian Parfait Hakizimana: "Good things are ahead, not behind us."

The Burundian para taekwondo athlete on how sport helped him overcome trauma and the pain of losing his family.

Picture by © UNHCR/Eugene Sibomana

Aged just six, Parfait Hakizimana’s life changed forever when gunmen attacked the camp where his family had sought refuge in Burundi.

The attackers shot him in the left arm and killed his mother.

"The day of my life that I will never forget was also the day my mother was killed.”

Twenty years later, he was forced to flee his home country following post-election violence.

He found peace and comfort in Mahama Refugee Camp in neighbouring Rwanda, and immersed himself in taekwondo.

Now he is a Paralympian fighting for hope.

The 31-year-old has been competing in taekwondo's Paralympic Games debut at Tokyo 2020 as part of the Refugee Paralympic Team.

Refugee Taekwondo athlete Parfait Hakizimana during a training session in Rwanda ahead of the Paralympic Games. (Photo:UNHCR)
Picture by © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

The refugee team: A door of light

Parfait Hakizimana is just one of over 45,000 people living in the Mahama camp that primarily hosts Burundian refugees in Rwanda.

But two months ago, the International Paralympic Committee confirmed that he would be competing at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Hakizimana was ecstatic.

"It's like a door of light was opened for me as a refugee," he said.

"Good things are ahead, not behind us."

The 32-year-old, called deemed a "wonderful role model for refugees" is among six athletes in the Refugee Paralympic Team.

"My selection means that someone with disabilities is valued as a human being. And for a taekwondo player to be selected as part of the Refugee team, it shows that the respect and discipline the sport has instilled in us has earned us a position in the Refugee team,” continued Hakizimana who is the only one of the six athletes in Tokyo who still lives in a refugee camp.

Despite living in troubled times, Hakizimana has dedicated most of his life to the sport he began practising in the late 1990s.

And as a disabled athlete, that commitment has require extra perseverance.

“The disability has been my biggest challenge. There are some exercises like push-ups that I have not been able to do like able bodied,” he said.

"But I kept practising because sport for me was like a protection. It made me find joy and happiness. The joy I couldn’t have during my childhood I found in sport."

"Taekwondo has taught me respect. It taught me the importance of networks and sharing. Taekwondo has helped me to stay calm and focused." - PARFAIT HAKIZIMANA

Chasing peace, finding sport

But peace did not come easy for Parfait Hakizimana.

As a child refugee, he lacked the space and time to practise sport.

On the day "he will never forget in his life", armed attackers shot at civilians who had left their home and settled at an internally displaced persons site near Burundi’s largest city Bujumbura.

He was wounded by a gunshot and spent almost two years in hospital. Sadly, his mother was fatally shot during the assault.

"“We were sheltering at a camp then as we had been forced to leave home due to insecurity over political unrest in Burundi. It was in 1996 when we were attacked, and my mum was killed, and I was shot in the left arm,” recalled the athlete-cum-coach whose father died in a motorcycle accident in 2007.

The Burundian Civil War stretched from 1993 to 2005 and was caused by long-standing ethnic tensions.

Still healing from tragedy and grief, he was forced to flee to neighbouring Rwanda following post-election violence in the East African nation.

Since 2015, he has lived in Mahama, Rwanda’s largest refugee camp, and has channelled his energies into passing on his love of taekwondo to fellow refugees.

"I saw many terrible things when I decided to leave Burundi. We left in thousands to chase livelihoods in different countries.

"When I arrived in the Mahama refugee camp, life was very difficult… We had a lot of problems and many people gave up.

"As a black belt holder, I didn’t give up. I decided to start a sports club that helped me to forget the dark past, stay focused and try to make a new life."

'Keeping hope alive'

Steadily, he has done it.

He has remarkably trained over 100 refugees.

“We also tried to organise sports activities like basketball and football in camp just to have people forget their difficult lives. We also learn to live together from the teamwork we learnt in sport.”

Over the past few months, he has trained hard in order to leave a mark when taekwondo makes its Paralympic debut.

Tokyo will be the first time he competes on a bigger stage outside of Rwanda and Burundi.

He values the experience and exposure, but he's clear about his goal.

“I have two major dreams. I wish that one day I can form a club that will be well equipped and successful. The other big dream is to win a Paralympic medal in Tokyo.”

“He is self-confident and works hard to attain his goals,” his coach Zura Mushambokazi added.

“I feel he’s capable and has that enthusiasm. I am confident without a doubt that he will do well.”

No fewer than 29 nations will compete in para taekwondo which is very similar to the Olympic version. But in para taekwondo, punches and kicks to the head are not allowed as athletes have different blocking capabilities.

Ultimately Hakizimana hopes the refugees in Mahama, including his wife and 11-month old daughter, can find many positives from his participation at the Games.

I will be competing for my fellow refugees, so that they keep the hope alive and don’t lose the hope. Also, to remind us the value of staying together and keeping the peace. - PARFAIT HAKIZIMANA

"I know many people will see and follow my activities on TV and social media, I think seeing me will bring them joy and give them hope and something to aspire to."

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