Mustafa Nikqadam
Mustafa Nikqadam has honed his skills as a wrestler after spending seven years on Nauru. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
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Champion refugee wrestler seeks to represent Australia

Farid Farid June 3, 2024

With the Paris Olympics less than two months away, champion wrestler Mustafa Nikqadam is training kids in a loud gym in western Sydney.

An asylum seeker who spent seven years in Nauru, the 28-year-old grew up between Iran and Afghanistan where he escaped the iron-fisted rule of the Taliban who killed his father when he was a teenager.

The notorious group continues to target the minority Hazaras, who Mr Nikqadam belongs to, for their ethnicity and religion.

Mustafa Nikqadam
 Mr Nikqadam was trained by local Nauruans and other detained Afghan asylum-seekers. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

Since being medically evacuated from the remote Pacific Island to Australia in 2021, he has quickly honed his skills as a wrestler.

“I was not allowed to train professionally in Iran as a refugee and not allowed to go to clubs and gyms,” he told AAP at the UFC Wetherill Park gym.

“When I was transferred to Nauru (from Christmas Island), I thought there was nothing else to look forward (to) that’s at least what I can control, and I took wrestling seriously.”

Local Nauruans and other detained Afghan asylum-seekers took him under their wings and trained him professionally in a gym close to the detention centre.

With his speed and agility, his body slamming techniques were highly prized and he qualified to compete as a judo player in the 2020 London Olympics as part of the international refugee team.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his dreams were shattered with the borders shut down.

Mr Nikqadam was inspired to become a wrestler as a teenager following in the footsteps of the late Hazara wrestler Pahlawan Ibrahim, who competed in four Olympics, Iranian gold medallist Hasan Yazdani and six-time world champion American Jordan Burroughs.

He trains five days a week alongside his job as a painter.

Mustafa Nikqadam
 Mr Nikqadam trains kids out of a gym in western Sydney. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

In 2022, he became the Australian national champion in the 70kg class and has had a few second-place finishes since then.

But he cannot represent Australia or travel overseas to compete in international meets since he is on a bridging visa that he has to renew every six months.

“It gave me a boost winning the highest rank as a wrestler in Australia and that I was good enough to go to the Olympics but it depressed (me) knowing I can’t go because of the visa situation, it hit me really hard,” he said.

He longs to secure a permanent protection visa from the Australian government so he can take the next stage in his wrestling career and feel stable in Australia.

Justin Holland, a NSW wrestling coach who trained with Mr Nikqadam and has competed in two Commonwealth Games, says he would add depth to Australia’s wrestling team.

“He can produce results for Australia in the Pacific and internationally,” Mr Holland said.

“It’s kind of unfortunate that he’s unable to get the papers especially with someone with his potential, he could do so much.

“It (being granted a permanent visa) would give him more motivation to put more into his training … and get to the next level of international exposure.”

Mr Holland explained that with more wrestlers extending their professional careers up to the age of 35, Mr Nikqadam would be a great asset for an Australian wrestling delegation on the world stage and the next Olympics.

But his precarious situation has not stopped him from training, competing and teaching the next generation of Australian kids how to hit the mat.

He is in his element with his quiet demeanour and patience showing a bunch of rowdy children rocking up to his class after school how to pin their opponents.

Mustafa Nikqadam
 Mr Nikqadam hopes to train Australian kids to one day go to the Olympics. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

In a full circle moment, the softly-spoken trainer is now demonstrating techniques to two children whose Iranian parents were on the same boat with him seeking asylum from Indonesia to Australia in 2013.

One of the children, 10-year-old Shariar, was born in an immigration detention centre in Australia while his younger brother Shayan was born in Sydney but they are both not Australian citizens yet.

Their mother Atefeh Hematnia, an Iranian nurse who recently received her permanent protection visa, said her sons see Mr Nikqadam as family and an inspirational role model.

“My life is not in the best position – I can’t do what I want to do – however, what I’m doing now is I’m training Australian kids to go to the Olympics when they get to my age,” he said.

“I lost the best years of my life in detention but what I can see is potential for Australian kids so they can compete internationally.”