Mahdi Ahmadian fell in love with table tennis thanks to his father – a top-level player from Iran. Following in his footsteps, Mahdi competed internationally, but a situation meant he was forced to leave Iran after fearing for his safety.
Mahdi made a perilous journey across Europe and three weeks later, reached a refugee camp in Austria with a table tennis racket as his only belonging. But thanks to the kindness of the people around him and his unwavering passion for the sport, he made a whole new life for himself to keep his lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian alive.
Eight years since leaving Iran, that same dream is in touching distance after the Olympic Refuge Foundation awarded him a scholarship to help Mahdi train towards Paris 2024. If he qualifies for the Games, he will become the first-ever refugee to compete in table tennis at the Olympics…
My father handed me my first table tennis bat when I was eight years old. We didn’t have a table in our house, but we hit the ball all over the place! Three years later, we got our first table outside in our parking area. I started playing with my younger brother and he became my training partner. He’s gone on to have a very good career and I always support him. My parents are proud of us both too – my father used to travel lots to take us to tournaments and my mother was always really happy when we came back with medals. We had many friends who faced bad situations because of problems in Iran – they had no chance to make careers for themselves, so I always say “thank you” to my father for putting a table tennis bat in my hand. It’s saved my health and my life.
The first tournament I played was at school and then I started to play for a team in Tehran. When I was 17, I played in my first international tournament and won bronze. By 18, I was top 10 in Iran for under 21s. But when I was 19, a situation meant I couldn’t compete for the national team anymore, so I said to myself: I must leave for my life and for my sport career.
I didn’t have my passport, so it was a very difficult journey for me…First, I had to get to Turkey. I travelled for up to 12 hours each day without food and drink and I had to jump like a monkey to cross the border. Afterwards, someone arranged for a car to pick me up and take me to a small house with about 50 other people from Afghanistan and Iraq. The house had some very dangerous people who said they were looking to bring people into a terrorist group, so I had to play like an actor in a movie. I tried to act like someone who is also dangerous: I was friendly with them, I played poker and I smoked – I was a sport athlete, I had never smoked! But I wanted to appear like them so they wouldn’t ask me questions about my story.
‘Fight for your life’ – Mahdi’s message of hope to refugees
I stayed there for three days before another car picked me up to get to Istanbul. From Istanbul, I arranged for someone to drive me to the border so I could get to Greece by boat. It wasn’t official or legal, but I knew that refugees were welcome in Europe. They put nearly 50 of us on a very small plastic boat with a motor that was just like a toy. It was at night, everything was dark, and it was October, so we were all very cold. After about an hour, the motor started to defect and lots of water came into the boat. People started to pray and we all thought that we could die. I don’t want to remember it lots because it was a very hard time – I just closed my eyes and thought I would swim to Greece if I had to! But the sea was very dangerous, and we still had four hours to go. They told us we had to throw everything into the sea so that the boat wasn’t as heavy. I got rid of everything: my travel bag, my food… but I kept just one thing: my table tennis bat! I said, “this is the one thing that I have that can help me start again and have my life. I’ve had it since I was eight and I cannot throw it in the water!”
At the same time, they were able to fix the motor, so we were able to get to Greece. When we arrived, I found out how many people had died before making the same journey and I know I am very lucky.
In Greece, there were people from the UN helping refugees and I started to help too as a translator for Farsi and English. My English is terrible, but it was enough, so I helped hundreds of children and old people with their problems. I saw everything about refugees’ lives: so many of them were in bad health, some were really depressed – it was a very difficult experience and I wish to never be in that situation again.
After four days, we took a train to the centre of Europe and reached Austria where I was sent to a reception centre (a location for refugees when they first arrive in a new country). It was based at a renovation church in Linz, run by nuns from Caritas* (a global charity). They were nice people who helped me a lot and I worked there cooking and cleaning. When I first arrived, they asked me what clothes I needed, but I was just sad because all I wanted was table tennis! After two days, they found Linz AG Froschberg – one of the best table tennis academies in Europe. The first day I went to the club, the manager checked my world ranking and asked about my story. He gave me clothes and equipment and said I could come to training.
To get to the club each time, I had to cycle and get a train, but I only had €140 per month so I had no chance to buy food. But at the church, apples were free, so I ate three apples a day – that was my life! Occasionally, I would get a hamburger for €1 at McDonald’s.
Mahdi with one of the nuns in Linz and his table tennis bat from Iran.
Image credit: Eurosport
Mahdi working at the church in Linz.
Image credit: Eurosport
A month later, I had a health problem and people found me on the floor at church. They took me to hospital, but they couldn’t see anything wrong and said it was down to emotional reasons. I know that many refugees have depression and panic attacks because of the trauma they’ve suffered, so maybe that’s what happened to me. But after that, I was good. I carried on working at the church and training at the club and then I was given an opportunity to play in a tournament in Vienna. I met an Iranian player there who played at a club called Baden AC – he told me I could play for (Austrian) Bundesliga, so I decided to move and start a new life so I could play at a professional level again.
I’ve been in Baden for seven years. Soon after moving, something amazing happened… I was at the metro station and I saw a woman who I guessed was Iranian. She looked lost, so I went up to her and asked if I could help her. We ended up on the same train together and I found out she had arrived just seven days ago and was working as a German teacher. At first, she was my teacher and then it just happened! We moved in together and got married in 2019. Now we have two kids; my son is two and daughter is five – she started table tennis last month.
For work, I was coaching at the club, but everything in Austria is very expensive and I needed to support my family. So, four years ago, I opened a table tennis business to sell rackets. I sold them at the club and then I started to sell online to Iran which was very successful.
I had a very good focus in life: my family, playing in the Bundesliga and my business. Earlier this year, I found out that I had been accepted on the Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme. That was a very emotional moment for me because of everything I have suffered in this life. I just fell to the ground and said, “thanks, God! That was my dream.”
When I was staying at refugee camps on my journey from Iran, I used to write down my visions for the future. I would write: ‘I want to be in the Olympics’, ‘I want to be the owner of a business’. I wrote about 50 things and everything has started to come true! It shows that if you dream something and work hard for it, it can happen.
Image credit: Getty Images
I am also very grateful to the people in Austria – they helped me a lot and gave me good opportunities for my life. I believe that there is always a hand who can take your hand and bring you to your dreams, so never give up and always have hope.
If you are a refugee, you have to start a new life like you’re a baby. You have to learn how to speak, how to make connections… everything is new and different. I’ve been given opportunities for a new life, so I want to do my best and that’s what gives me all my motivation. I want to be a role model for my kids, just like my father was for me.
For Paris, I’m training like I’m Iron Man! I train twice a day and try to make everything as good as it can be – my food, fitness, sleep. The ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) has helped me a lot and I compete in international tournaments about once a month (as part of WTT – World Table Tennis Tour). It means I can get experience with different players and improve my ranking. I’m the first refugee table tennis player, so everyone has eyes on me when I play – it’s like I am a superstar, the feeling is amazing! The competition is hard because I haven’t been able to play internationally for many years until now, but I have a good feeling and I’m positive that I can go to Paris. It’s my dream.
Refugees’ Voice profiles Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders in the lead-up to Paris 2024. There are currently 63 scholarship-holders as part of the Refugee Athlete Support Programme which is managed by the Olympic Refuge Foundation and funded by Olympic Solidarity. All 63 athletes are hoping to qualify for the Games and compete as part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team Paris 2024. The athletes are from 12 countries, live in 23 host countries, and represent 13 sports.
*Caritas is a family of 162 national Catholic relief and development agencies working across the world.