How refugee Dorsa Yavarivafa fled Iran for her love of badminton

Dorsa Yavarivafa, badminton player selected to represent the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in the Paris 2024 games, poses for portraits in London, Britain, May 21, 2024. REUTERS/Chris J. Ratcliffe

LONDON (Reuters) - On a rainy November morning in 2018, 15-year-old Dorsa Yavarivafa and her mother left Tehran for Turkey with fake German passports – the first thing she grabbed when she was told they were leaving at 4 a.m. was her badminton bag.

The pair flew a month later to Germany, then to Belgium and eventually to France. Yavarivafa would be jailed three times -- once entirely alone for a day, crying and taken from her mother -- before she made it to Birmingham, England at the end of 2019 and finally found a home.

She said she fled her country for two reasons: her mother wanted to change her religion and Yavarivafa had repeatedly been rejected by the national badminton team without being told why.

"I was really scared because I didn't know what was going to happen to me," said Yavarivafa, who will turn 21 in July while competing at the Paris 2024 Games as part of the largest refugee Olympic team to date, with 36 athletes from 11 countries.

"I didn't know where I was going. My mum just said we were going to go to another country, but she never told me how or where," Yavarivafa added.

"It was all worth it. Now, that I think back about it -- all that suffering is over so I'm really happy now."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its first refugee team at the Rio 2016 Games with 10 athletes to raise awareness of the issue as hundreds of thousands of people were pouring into Europe from the Middle East and elsewhere escaping conflict and poverty.

"(My parents) were really proud when we heard that I got accepted," Yavarivafa said. "We were all crying... just really a relief, a relief of anxiety."

Yavarivafa was introduced to the sport by her father, who sells car parts and stayed in Iran in case his wife and daughter needed to go back.

"He did come here about six months ago. That's where I saw him after five years," she said. "It was such an emotional moment -- saw him in the airport, crying with excitement."

Yavarivafa has been playing badminton for a decade, but began training seriously when she was 11-years-old.

"I started to win a lot of tournaments in Iran," Yavarivafa said. "That's where I took it seriously and I watched a lot of badminton. I got inspired by a lot of people - one of them is (Spain's) Carolina Marin."

Yavarivafa said her former coach put her in touch with Beijing 2008 Olympian Kaveh Mehrabi of Iran, who helped her apply to be a part of the Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme.

The 20-year-old is now studying sports and exercise science at Middlesex University in London and trains three times a week at the Sankey Academy, an independent badminton club in Milton Keynes.

Yavarivafa hopes to "get a lot of experience" in Paris and talk to her idols, including Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist Marin, who beat India's PV Sindhu 19-21 21-12 21-15. Marin had to pull out of the Tokyo 2020 Games after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.

When asked what it meant to be part of the refugee team, Yavarivafa said she has a message for the world's 100 million refugees: "You're not alone... It doesn't matter where you come from. Doesn't matter where are you living now, dreams come true."

"Not many people look at us as a normal people," Yavarivafa added. "We are normal. We are normal people like everyone else."

(Reporting by Richa Naidu; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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