Iranian-born Raheleh Asemani, 26, became the first refugee athlete ever to qualify for the Olympic sport of taekwondo this year. In 2010, she’d won a silver medal at the Asian Games and became an elite fighter in Iran, but after seeking asylum in Belgium in 2012 (the politics of which she declines to discuss), Asemani became uncertain about her once promising athletic career. Without a country she could officially call home, she would be unable to compete in the qualifying tournament that would confirm her Olympic Games ticket to Rio. She also had to settle into a foreign country with little money and a tough language barrier. It was time to consider Plan B.
Asemani took a job as a postal worker and began to learn Dutch (and eventually mastered it). But she kept on fighting. Asemani connected with Belgium's national taekwondo team and continued her training in the sport her father had encouraged her to embrace as a child—with Olympic Games promise still evident.
Then last year, a little luck was kicked her way. The International Olympic Committee, wanting to give refugee athlete hopefuls the opportunity to compete, called for changes to be made to the Olympic Games qualifying procedures. In response, the European Taekwondo Union changed its policy to admit athletes living in Europe under refugee status. Asemani defeated Finland’s national champion at the European qualifying tournament in Istanbul in January to earn her spot at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. “I work in a post office, I run from house to house delivering letters, but today I was delivered a ticket to the Olympic Games,” she reportedly said after the win. She remains close to her father, who still lives in Iran and who has been supportive along the way, including of her bid to Rio.
After qualifying, Asemani was considered to be one of the first-ever members of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) in Rio. (The IOC Executive Board will make the final selection in June of five to 10 refugee athletes who will compete on the team). But this past April, Asemani scored another win: Belgian citizenship. "Now Belgium feels like my country," she reportedly told NBC. "What can be more beautiful for me? I can do something for my country."
Visa is proud to announce Raheleh Asemani’s acceptance into Team Visa Rio. Visa’s commitment to the Olympic Games began in 1986 and since then Visa has supported more than 1,000 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with financial and marketing support as they strive to accomplish a lifelong dream. Giving everyone the ability to reach their highest potential, regardless of background, has been a key motivator for Team Visa since the program began in 2004.
Asemani joins a team of international athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation, including fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to compete in a hijab at the Olympic Games; 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist in hurdles Sally Pearson from Australia and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist in beach volleyball Emanuel Rego from Brazil. “I am honored to be a Team Visa athlete and join the many great and diverse athletes already on the team,” says Asemani. Many Team Visa athletes have broken barriers; all have achieved greatness in their sport. Asemani has done both and we look forward to watching her round-kick her way toward gold come August.