Judoka, Iranian refugee, and single mother. This is the introduction of Mahboubeh Barbari Zharfi, one of the athletes who will participate in the Paris Games after joining the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. Her sporting story is an inspiring testament to resilience and the pursuit of a better future.

Mahboubeh, aged 32, hails from the port city of Bandar Anzali in the north of Iran, where her childhood was marked by political repression and street violence. Perhaps it was these challenging circumstances that drove her to seek refuge in judo, a discipline she began as a teenager on her mother's recommendation.

"At that time, I realised judo had the power to give me a purpose in life," says Mahboubeh, recalling how this motivation propelled her forward from the beginning, competition after competition, until she eventually joined the Iranian national team and fulfilled one of her dreams: representing her country internationally.

The social instability caused by a democracy-deficient government grew increasingly intense. Amidst restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary detentions, widespread violence, and recurrent human rights violations, the environment became unbearable. Sports were no exception; women faced prohibitions, both in terms of attire and access to facilities.

Together with her teammates and Muna Dahouk and Nigara Shaheen, and coach Vahid Sarlak. INTERNATIONAL JUDO FEDERATION.
Together with her teammates and Muna Dahouk and Nigara Shaheen, and coach Vahid Sarlak. INTERNATIONAL JUDO FEDERATION.

Faced with this bleak outlook and little hope of change from the state, Mahboubeh was forced to flee Iran in 2018. By then, she was already a single mother to a daughter, and this, combined with her desire to continue evolving as a judoka, made it clear that seeking protection in another country was the best decision. Germany was her chosen destination, where she sought asylum that later enabled her to reach the pinnacle of her career.

Once in Europe, Mahboubeh joined a training camp organised by the International Judo Federation (IJF), always balancing motherhood with the demands of elite sports. She also had to navigate linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as the emotional aftermath of her traumatic experience as a refugee.

Her effort and discipline have earned her participation in numerous competitions and several significant milestones in her career. Notably, last year she competed in the Judo World Championships, becoming the first Iranian woman to compete in the discipline without the hijab mandated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Additionally, this season she has climbed to 170th place in the world rankings, undoubtedly contributing to her inclusion in the Refugee Olympic Team.

Mahboubeh Barbari, ready for Paris 2024. INTERNATIONAL JUDO FEDERATION.
Mahboubeh Barbari, ready for Paris 2024. INTERNATIONAL JUDO FEDERATION.

"I am very excited to participate in the Games; it's a first for me. When I found out I was selected, I cried. I didn't expect to have such a reaction, but suddenly I felt like I had achieved everything in my life. I was really emotional," confesses the judoka, who has already doubled her training sessions to arrive in peak form for Paris 2024.

Mahboubeh's dedication to sport extends beyond judo; she is also active in bodybuilding, swimming, and athletics. A third dan black belt in judo, she has taken on roles as a judge and coach in the sport. As a single mother, refugee, and woman, Mahboubeh hopes to inspire others to pursue their goals. Her daughter remains her greatest source of motivation.