I met Mobin Kahrazeh outside the steel doors of a refugee camp in Austria. Even before he said anything, his stature, his athletic build and the marks on his face revealed that he has spent many years in a boxing ring.
Kahrazeh is the latest Iranian athlete to become a refugee. On February 8, news emerged that Kahrazeh had disappeared from Vienna airport while he was on his way to Hungary to take part in the Bocskai István Memorial International Boxing Tournament with the Iranian national team, which had got underway on February 6. Iranian media reacted to his disappearance within a few hours. Mizan News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian judiciary, reported that Iranian boxing coaches Akbar Ahadi and Ali Mazaheri had waited at the airport for six hours hoping for news of Kahrazeh’s whereabouts. Later, Fars News Agency asked Hossein Soori, the president of Iran’s Boxing Federation, about Kahrazeh. “We will get news about Mobin Kahrazeh from his family,” he said, “and we will try to get him back to Iran through his family.”
I found Mobin Kahrazeh in Traiskirchen, a village 30 miles from Vienna. The village is well known among Iranian refugees and asylum seekers, and brings up painful memories and associations for many of them. An old army barracks in a corner of the village has been turned into a center for registering asylum seekers. No matter from what border or from what airport a person enters Austria, if they ask the Austrian police for asylum, the police send them to Traiskirchen.
Kahrazeh comes from the province of Sistan and Baluchistan. He started boxing in 2007, made his way to the Under-20 National Boxing Team and in 2013 was invited to join the national team. He took part in the national championships and came third at the Asian games in the Philippines.
But now things have changed. “I left everything I had at Vienna airport,” he told me. “I cannot even practice because I left my gloves, helmet, exercise clothes and everything else there.” But he says he still exercises every day, making sure he doesn’t get out of shape.
During our 15-minute walk to the restaurant we had chosen to hold our conversation, I did not inquire about his reasons for leaving. Instead, we talked about other things — what he likes to eat and how the Austrian police treated him. But when sat down face to face, I couldn’t hold back my curiosity. I had to ask: Why did he become a refugee?
"I Could No Longer Take It"
“Suddenly I could no longer take it,” he told me. “My brain was drained of blood.”
The first day that Kahrazeh announced he was seeking asylum in Austria, he gave an interview to the Baluchi Activists Campaign, which was published on the group’s Telegram channel. “In the camps of the national team, from the under-20 team to the adult team, they repeatedly insulted my religion, the Sunni religion,” he told them.
I asked whether he had planned his defection, and he told me about the last conversation he had before he made his decision. “Had my action been pre-meditated, I would be in a different situation now,” he told me. “I did not even remove my money from my shoulder bag. I said those things because I had grown tired of all the discrimination and insults. Part of it was the ethnic and religious problems. Well, everybody knows that I am a Baluchi. But the other part was my lifetime efforts that nobody cared about.”
Then he told me what it was like to be an athlete in Iran.“You have to have been involved in professional sports in Iran to understand our problems,” he told me. “Not only there is no money, not only are there are no facilities, but also, in international competitions, you must always be careful about whom you lose to and whom you win against.”
He stopped then and went silent. Then he continued: “This was not the first time that they had warned us,” he said. “In Tehran, they told me and other guys over and over again that if we find ourselves in the same group with an Israeli boxer we must lose the game before [facing the Israeli boxer] so that there would be no need to forfeit the match or pretend that we are injured. We have been living with this scenario for a long time. Our lives depend on whether an Israeli is in our group or not.”
He pointed out that it was never a subtle matter, and that threats were involved. “During the flight they talked to me again,” he said. “They said: ‘we know for certain that Israel is coming to Hungary with four boxers, and they might participate in all weights. If there is an Israeli in your group, lose at the first match.’ I said: ‘I will not lose. I did not practice for years to go and lose the first match. I will fight.’”
This made the federation officials and the coaches angry. “’You will do no such thing,’ they said. ‘We will kick you so hard that you will not be able to find your way back home, let alone back to the federation.’ Then they insulted me. Like always, they insulted my ethnicity and my religion.”
Why did he not talk about this until now, I asked Kahrazeh? “I was afraid,” he said. “I am still afraid. Even now, sitting before you and talking I am afraid. Did you expect me to continue telling them the same thing?”
A Snap Decision
After the conversation on the plane, he was afraid and kept quiet. When they landed in Vienna, he abandoned his luggage and escaped. “It was a snap decision,” he told me.
Kahrazeh is the latest victim of Iran’s politicization of sports, and of the anti-Israel policy that intrudes on athletes’ lives and careers — but he is unlikely to be the last. “We were not allowed to even think about Israel, let alone fight the Israelis,” he said. “People should know about this. I have nothing except this sport. I sacrificed work, school and everything else. From mornings to evenings I punched and got punched. My only hope was to win a championship for Iran and get rewarded for it. Then they say: ‘lose before you play.’”
Kahrazeh told me that there are many who “lose” this way but nobody hears about them. “Do you think everybody’s story is like the story of Mollaei, which made the news?” he asked, referring to Saeid Mollaei, the Iranian Judo world champion. Earlier in February, Mollaei gave up his chance to win a gold medal at the Grand Slam tournament in Paris rather than face his next opponent, Sagi Muki of Israel. “Some national athletes are ordered to lose the first match so that they will not have to face an Israeli two matches down the road.”
Now, in Traiskirchen, Kahrazeh has one dream. “I want to keep going from here, without restriction, without anybody telling me whom to compete with, whom not to compete with and whom to lose to.”
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