Kabul, Afghanistan - Light bounces off the blue water and shimmers on the ceiling one early morning in Kabul, at the Lajaward Swimming Complex, the capital’s largest indoor swimming pool. It is the brainchild of Qasim Ali Rezaee, an Afghan with 25 years experience running recreation centers in Iran.
He returned to his native Afghanistan about two years ago to build this pool, despite his family’s scepticism. His wife and four sons remain in Iran for now to complete their studies.
“Our country needs something like this, we don’t have a facilities like this. When I was a refugee outside Afghanistan, this work was my business,” he explains. “I thought if I build this, it will be good for Afghans, a good place for young men to come; somewhere to come on holidays,” says Rezaee.
The complex has showers and a steam room in addition to the 25-meter long pool. Rezaee says he wishes the pool were twice as long, but he and his two business partners couldn’t find a plot of land large enough. Construction took 8 months and cost about $600,000.
The complex is popular for Afghans who can afford the $10 entrance fee - a hefty price in a country where the World Bank puts the average annual income at $585.
Women not allowed
One a weekday morning dozens of young men are in the pool. There’s a water polo game in the deep end, beneath a giant poster of American swimmer Michael Phelps doing the butterfly stroke. In the other end of the pool, some young men are wearing bright orange life jackets, others are doggie paddling. There is more than one belly flop. Many Afghans cannot swim at all, and Rezaee says some didn’t understand the need to shower before getting into the pool.
“Of course there are problems here in Afghanistan, of course the culture of the pool is new here, and people don’t really understand how to behave in a pool," he says, adding that he is not criticising people, as swimming edicit is something they aren't used to.
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On an average weekday, Rezaee says, there are at least 100 swimmers, on Fridays and holidays, there are five or six times as many. No women are allowed.
The complex also has a cafe that serve hamburgers, sandwiches and pomegranite juice. If you didn’t know better this could be any swimming pool anywhere in the world.
Rezaee says there are considerable challenges running a business like this. There’s only electricity 3 days a week, and even when it is on, the power is not consistent enough to run the pool’s filters, or heat the facility. He calls himself a slave to the generator. Some days the cost of diesel outstrips any profits he has made for the day.
He also says there has been some local opposition. He says while he was building the pool some officials demanded bribes, and others have complained that it’s not proper to have such a facility in the neighborhood.
“Of course I have some enemies here, and they don’t like that I’ve built this. There are some people who are trying to make problems, that the pool should be closed, but what can you do?”
Rezaee says he’s surprised there are people here who don’t seem to want to promote prosperity in Afghanistan, but he also has some devoted fans, like Qassem Hamidi, the new director of Afghanistan’s water polo federation and a swimming coach.
Hamidi, 44, has trained as an athlete and worked as a coach in Iran, Turkey and Uzbekistan. He returned to Afghanistan three years ago to promote swimming, but says this pool makes it possible to train properly. Many Afghans want to exercise he says, but there aren’t many places to do so.
“This kind of facility which is here, not because of the government, but because of a private businessman, shows promise for the future so that Afghans can learn more and more. This kind of place makes it possible to have the opportunity to win a competition,” he says.
Hamidi’s most promising student is an unlikely swimmer. Ali Abbas, 16, was born without arms. When the pool first opened he came to see it, and was envious of the others splashing around. He says he was terrified the first time he got in the water with a life jacket on. Hamidi asked if he wanted to swim.
“I locked my hands behind my back and I showed him I could swim without my arms, and I told him he could too and that he should try,” the coach explains. Abbas says little by little he learned to swim. His coach says it took only a week, for Abbas to be totally comfortable in the water.
“In 20 years, I’ve trained a lot of students, but I’ve never seen anyone like Abbas, I remember when he came to this pool, he was very scared but curious too,” he says.
Abbas has learned to eat, drink, turn on the shower and write using only is feet. Being in the pool means a new type of freedom. “I feel comfortable and happy in the water,” he explains. “I don’t feel different from anyone else when I’m in the water.”
After only six months of training, Abbas and his coach have their sites set on the Brazil Paralympics in 2016. Hamidi has already spoken to Afghanistan’s Olympic Committee which says it’s holding a slot for him for the games. With nearly four years to train, both have high hopes Abbas can bring home a medal.
Rights for the disabled were only passed into law last year, and disability advocates are still working on ways to implement them.
"I want to teach the students who are blind. Being blind isn’t hard, it just means you have to try harder"
- Said Najibullah, Afghan swimmer
The disability charity Serve estimates there are 800,000 disabled in Afghanistan. Estimates are all they can use, the last nationwide survey of physically, mentally, visually and hearing impaired Afghans was in 2005.
Officials from Serve say only a small fraction of the disabled have access to support. Of the 50-60 thousand blind, they say only 2500 are in education programs across the country. Community outreach efforts in Kabul and Parwan train children to give them skills that will allow them to attend mainstream schools.
They train teachers alongside them to help ease the transition, and help hearing impaired students use sign language for and blind students to read and write Braille. Serve has provided Braille textbooks and audio lectures as teaching aids. Training to be ready for mainstream school can take up to two years. Serve says it has 75 visually impaired and 85 hearing impaired students in regular schools and its officials are particularly proud of the 19 students currently at Kabul University.
Said Najibullah, 15, uses a Braille writer to complete his assignments. He’s attending high school and is at the top of his class and plans to go on to university. “I want to be a teacher,” he says. “I want to teach the students who are blind. Being blind isn’t hard, it just means you have to try harder.”
The Lajaward swimming pool hosted Afghanistan’s first-ever disabled swimming competition. Ali Abbas continues to train there and hopes to inspire others to join him.
“My message is never give up and always try to learn,” says Abbas. “If you give up then you can not improve, not progress. It’s important to learn and grow every day, with trying and exercising you can do whatever you want.”