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‘It was a living hell’: Escaping the Taliban to chase a boxing dream

Many boxers can genuinely declare they have ‘come up the hard way’ but very few have had it quite as tough as Kaisy Khademi. He tells Declan Taylor his story

Friday 26 February 2021 11:31
Kaisy Khademi (R) defeats Sergey Tasimov
Kaisy Khademi (R) defeats Sergey Tasimov

It was 1998 when a four-year-old boy called Kaisy Khademi and his family waited for nightfall before boarding a coach which they hoped would lead them away from the “living hell” which was Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

They were told to keep their heads out of view as they left their home in Taimani, a project in north-western Kabul, and set off for the border with Pakistan in the south of the country.

The Taliban controlled the border with little mercy. Anyone caught trying to flee could end up dead.

“It was very hard for people to leave the country but the guy who hired the coach had a good link on the border to let us get out,” Khademi remembers. “We made it across. It was the start of basically four years of hiding.”

Khademi’s parents, aunties and uncles had decided that enough was enough and they had to get out of the country.

As members of the Hazara community they were no longer safe. During the Mazar-i-Sharif massacre on August 8, 1998, the Taliban went door to door, executing combat-age male Hazaras. It is said that as many as 20,000 men were killed. One of Khademi’s elder brothers was shot by the Taliban and his parents knew they had no option but to escape.

Another of his brothers, at this point, was already living and working in London so the family packed up their lives and headed for Britain. It would be a long and dangerous road.

“The Taliban took over in 1992 and it was bad, man,” he adds. “It was like a living hell. It was no place for a human to be.

“And because of the way I look they treated me and my family very differently. They were killing civilians, robbing civilians, stealing their daughters, raping. It was a very bad place to be. I had many family members killed by them so it was a very tough time. I was only a kid. I don’t remember too much but I remember that a big bus that took us away. As a family, chucked inside to go to Pakistan. I remember more from Pakistan, we were there for two years.

“But even there it wasn’t safe. I always remember people came to our house and pulled a gun on my dad. They hit him with the back of the gun and were asking him questions like where was his oldest son. He was already in London at the time.

“We didn’t feel safe there so we started our journey to the UK. It took us another two years.”

Many boxers can genuinely declare that they have ‘come up the hard way’ but it is immediately clear that very few have had it quite as tough as Khademi. Now 26 years old, a legal resident since 2009, Khademi believes his journey so far has forged a man capable of reaching the top of the world. It would be some turnaround.

“In the end I got to the UK in a lorry full of apples,” he smiles. “After Pakistan we went all over Europe, either on foot or by car. We went to Russia, crossed borders into Slovakia, Hungary and then ended up in Germany.

“From there we headed for France and it is there where you jump on the lorries hoping to get across the Channel but you don’t know where the lorry is going when you get on it. A lot of people have tried 100 times and never made it to England. For us, on our third attempt we got across.

“Traffickers take money and then take you to the lorry. There are a lot of lorries, in a resting area, so it’s just pure luck. They told us that at a certain time you need to hear the ship noise, if you hear that, stay quiet and wait. You’re on your way. If you don’t hear a ship noise, you start banging the doors so they let you out and call the police. They then take you back to the camp and you start again.

“Our first two lorries for us were going to different places – I think the first one was headed to Finland. The first one was a clothing lorry, the second was meat but the one I got across in was fruit. It was very cold in there, I was freezing, man. I was on the top shelf so when we got to the UK and the police came, the first guy they took out was me. I was frozen.”

By that point he had been separated from his parents and made the trip with members of his brother’s family. His mother and father would cross the Channel in a later group and end up in Doncaster, where they stayed, separated from their children, until 2009.

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For Khademi, however, his start to life in the UK could not have been more quintessentially English.

“My brother owned a fish and chip shop so we lived above there,” He says. “He said he would take responsibility for us so we all went with him to Dalston.

“We were exhausted. We were very tired. Obviously we were very happy, it felt like we were in heaven, man. It was like – no more journey, we don’t have to hide anymore. The relief was incredible but we were just so, so tired.

“I was eight by the time we got there. I had been travelling for four years. I just remember it as a constant journey. When I reflect on it now it just seems like an adventure. We were going from country to country and it was like hide and seek.

“I know my family were living in constant fear of being found by police because the police are very brutal in many European countries. But I was young at that point so maybe didn’t realise the danger we were in.

“We crossed rivers that many refugees drowned in. We got in a tiny boat and it took half an hour to get across it. Then as soon as we’re over the river we are put inside a car, people are squeezed in the boot, for 10 hours. It was a crazy time.

“But I’ve learned a lot from it. My parents’ goal was to get to the UK and I’m carrying the same mentality to get to the world title.”

On Saturday Khademi, an 8-0 super flyweight of much promise, makes his television debut when he faces Ijaz Ahmed at the Copper Box live on BT Sport. For the refugee, it will be a huge moment on his journey and another step towards his dual goal of changing opinion.

Kaisy Khademi (R) defeats Jemsi Kibazange

“Everyone has a different view of refugees coming over to the UK,” says Khademi, who started boxing at Club KO in Walthamstow, aged 15.

“People say ‘well if you’re not happy here, go back to where you came from’. Many refugees get here the easy way so they might not be grateful for what they have. But because of the journey I had, I know what it means to be here.

“A lot of kids who come here are not allowed to work so they take the wrong path, maybe start selling drugs. I have had a lot of friends who are Afghani and who have been sent by their family to come here. They have come here the easy way and they don’t appreciate what they have. They are not allowed to work so they go in the street and end up selling drugs. They get arrested after two or three years when their family have spent everything to get them here.

“So I want to motivate people like me. I want to show that this country is full of opportunities, you don’t have to go and do negative stuff and make all the other refugees look bad. I think people who have bad views of refugees see those kind of guys and say ‘refugees all come and get involved in criminal stuff’.

“I want to give both sides a different views: to fellow refugees, you can make something of yourself if you use it wisely. And to those who talk bad about refugees: I can say ‘look, I’ve come here, I work hard and I’m grateful for being here’. It’s about getting the message across now and that’s why it’s good to be on BT Sport.”

Last year was a tough one for Khademi. His mother died in September and then, when he was supposed to box in November, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was unable to enter the bubble.

“Mentally it was a good thing because I wasn’t right after losing my mum,” he says. “Apart from signing with Frank Warren, last year was full of disappointment.

“But I’ve overcome much bigger challenges and I take everything in my stride. Now I am very focused, everything has been 100 per cent and I can’t wait to get back on track starting on Saturday.

“I am on a path to becoming the first Afghan-British to win a world title, that’s the goal, and I want to do it for my parents.

“I won’t stop until I make it.”

Khademi vs Ahmed - Live on Saturday 27th February, 7.30pm on BT Sport 1 HD

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