Meet the Match
An Egyptian Bringing Disability Sport to the Spotlight
For a long time, Mohamad Raafat wasn’t sure if he would play sports again. Soon after winning his first karate championship at the age of 13, he was injured in an accident while playing with friends on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt. The injury to his spinal cord required two years of rehabilitation and resulted in Mohamed becoming a wheelchair user. He remembers that all he could think about at that point was returning to his earlier lifestyle.
Then, Mohamed turned on the television to the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“There were so many Egyptians who won gold medals,” Mohamed remembers. “It inspired me to start playing again. I wanted to play a tough sport, too, to make my body stronger and to be independent.”
Months later, Mohamed began seriously training as a wheelchair racer. In 2016, he won a silver medal in the 100 meters and a gold medal in the 200 meters at the Egyptian National Cup. He is currently training with his goal set on qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Mohamad balances training with a career as a project coordinator for Alhassan Foundation for Differently Abled Inclusion, as well as coursework for an MBA at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and international business in 2012. He regularly spends eight hours in the office coordinating the foundation’s major projects, then trains for two hours, and later supports his father at night with the accounting for his garment manufacturing business.
It is a demanding schedule, but Mohamed understands the importance of balancing his many endeavors to his personal growth. In fact, his many responsibilities help propel him forward in challenging stereotypes of people with disabilities, who in 2011 were estimated in a report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF to make up 11 percent of the country’s population (approximately 8.5 million people).
“There is this perception that people have toward people with disabilities that we are so limited,” Mohamed says. “Discrimination is very normal. But, I want to show that if we open the door to people with disabilities, they can become champions and success stories.”
Through its community outreach programs,
Alhassan Foundation dispels these perceptions by encouraging wheelchair users to challenge themselves and gain confidence on a daily basis. Mohamed is currently the lead on five projects that focus on sports, accessible transportation, wheelchair customization, small business support, and the creation of an information database on wheelchair users across Egypt.
As a sportsman himself, Mohamed is especially passionate about the sports program. In 2013, the program launched as a way to give wheelchair users a means to socialize and exercise. Since then, it has grown to include 80 athletes who compete nationally.
“The sports program was only intended as a trial, but it’s had really amazing results,” Mohamed says. “When a person doesn’t have anything in their life and they come to this club to try these new sports and make friends, it’s like their life takes a 180 degree swing. Sport isn’t sport anymore. It’s a way to heal and move forward. It’s a path to college, work, marriage, and an active role in society.”
As Alhassan’s sports program was initially founded to serve recreational purposes, it lacked a level of professionalism and expertise associated with elite sports programs in other countries. A lack of accessible sports facilities where athletes can train, and a gap in sponsorship and fundraising presented other challenges to the success of the foundation’s sports teams.
Through the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Mohamed benefited from the guidance of a mentor who worked with him to fill these gaps. During the program, he was partnered with mentor Sarah Olson, program coordinator for Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center. Sarah is the lead on military, membership, and other health and wellness programs for the organization, and has the experience of serving in her role since Ability360’s grand opening in 2012. The largest independent living center in Arizona, the organization is home to comprehensive adaptive sports programs that emphasize independence, fitness, and overall health. Through Sarah and Ability360, Mohamed had access to every aspect of an organization at the top of the field in disability sport, which were of great value for him on his road to expand his impact felt in Egypt.