“When we were planning the Wheelchair Provision and Service Workshop, sport was not the first thing that came to mind. There are so many people here that need basic, well-fitting chairs that sports wheelchairs seemed out of the question,” Shukhrat, the project manager and associate regional director of Operation Mercy, told us.
“But when we met with the local disabled people’s organizations (DPOs), they all asked us if we could order some sports wheelchairs for them to use. One man told us he has wanted to play sports for 12 years.”
And so, our first container of chairs, which arrived in December of 2015, included some sports wheelchairs. Less than a year later, we were witnesses to the first-ever wheelchair basketball tournament in the history of Tajikistan.
Operation Mercy staff spent weeks training DPO members in the strategies, tactics, and skills of basketball in both the capital city, Dushanbe, and the northern city of Khujand. After much time, sweat, and blisters, the teams – both men’s and women’s, were ready.
As we gathered at the National Park in Dushanbe to witness the tip-off, the excitement in the air was palpable and the smiling faces of the DPO members were contagious. There was so much joy and hope surrounding this event; there also was intense spirit of competition. The players were well trained and ready to compete – they were here to win! One government official commented, “When we discussed a wheelchair basketball event, I thought that it would be impossible, that people with disabilities cannot play sports! But, this event has changed my mind – it is so amazing what these people are able to do. This game is exciting and fun!”
Many spectators came out to watch the event – including 35 people from the northern region who drove five hours to get there. Later, these DPO members were eating together at a restaurant when the owner came out and said, “I saw you on television, in the wheelchair basketball game. Your meal is on me.” With tears in their eyes, the DPO members told us, “We used to be unseen, hidden away, and forgotten by our people, but now we are noticed and treated like celebrities!”
At the end of the game, the man who wanted to play sports for 12 years sat in his sports wheelchair chair and cried and cried – openly weeping with joy. Without question, this event has grown hope and built community in this small Central Asian nation.