The story of Arjola Dedaj is a long tale of daily battles since her birth in Albania 35 years ago.
Aged just three, Dedaj was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of inherited disorders that leads to progressive sight loss, even blindness, with the ability only to distinguish between light and dark.
After a difficult childhood, Dedaj moved to Italy on a cold December night in 1998. Her mode of transportation was an inflatable boat and all she could see was the stars.
Two days ago, Dedaj made her Paralympics debut – lining up in the women’s 100m T11 in Rio de Janeiro.
The journey to Rio seemed unthinkable, especially after Dedaj herself called that trip to Italy a “lucky” one compared with the journeys undertaken now by the refugees.
“I hear these unpleasant stories and I understand and sympathise because it is something I have been through while on an inflatable boat,” Dedaj told Al Jazeera.
“I consider our trip a very lucky one as it didn’t end up in tragedy like a lot of journeys recently undertaken by the refugees. I see a lot of suffering people who have left their homeland for a better life and unfortunately some of them haven’t reached their destination, which is very painful.
“We all have the right to live with dignity and above all in welfare.”
Living with dignity in Albania was not easy for Dedaj, she recalls. She felt “bad and discriminated”, adding that she grew up in pain by just the looks she got from people.
But in Italy she discovered a new world of opportunities that led her to ballet classes at the age of 20, followed by six national baseball championship for the blind titles with Milano Thunder’s Five.
She stepped foot in the world of athletics only four years ago. Now she’s a European medal-winning sprinter and long jumper. She won two silver medals (long jump and 100m) and one bronze medal (400m) at Euro 2014 in Wales, followed by a bronze in the long jump and 200m at the Paralympic European Championships in June this year.
think a person with disabilities can’t have a boyfriend or have a beautiful life.”]
“Even in Italy, there are people unaware of disabilities and sometimes more judgmental and a bit discriminatory. But I have the possibility to talk to them and make them understand the situation.
“Fortunately, there are many open-minded people that coexist with others in diversity, because diversity is not just being disabled but also a number of things that are characteristics for some people, like culture, language or skin colour.”
But bigger than the looks and discrimination from other people, Dedaj’s biggest challenge was to accept her condition and that has made her the person she is today.
“It was challenging to accept myself and to be able to make others aware that disability should not be considered a shame.
She is no longer the shy girl who was hiding behind myopic glasses and feeling scared. Through sports, Dedaj has learned how to look with new eyes.
“I started to be more independent and get used to living with my condition. I’m not afraid to do anything. I move forward in life without any problem. All humans face problems but we need to find the right solution to overcome obstacles.”
The world of athletics not only gave Dedaj an opportunity to prove doubters wrong, but also to help her find love.
Dedaj and Emanuele Di Marino, a T44 Paralympic athlete born with a distortion in the left leg, are known as La Coppia dei Sogni (The Couple of Dreams).
“In Albania people tell me I’m so lucky to have found a boyfriend. They think a person with disabilities can’t have a boyfriend or have a beautiful life.
“But we all have the right to live a normal life and to love and follow our passions.”