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BAQUBA: Iraqi paralympics table tennis athlete Najlah Imad, displays her medals at her house in Baqubah. – AFP
BAQUBA: Iraqi paralympics table tennis athlete Najlah Imad, displays her medals at her house in Baqubah. – AFP

Iraqi car bomb survivor eyes gold in Paris

BAQUBA: When car bomb survivor Najlah Imad first took up table tennis, her relatives warned against it. But a decade later, the Iraqi teenager who lost three limbs is gunning for gold at the 2024 Paralympic Games.

“Table tennis was a turning point. Since I started playing, my life has changed,” the 19-year-old athlete told AFP. Najlah was just three years old when a 2008 sticky bomb ripped into her father’s car—an ex-military—in the city of Baquba northeast of Baghdad. In a split second, like tens of thousands of Iraqis, Najlah became a victim of bombs that have ripped through the conflict-scarred country for decades. She lost most of her right leg, her left leg at the knee, and her right forearm.

Remarkably, she now recounts the life-altering incident with a sense of calm. “Table tennis has improved my mental health,” she said from a dilapidated sports centre in Baquba. Najlah’s face lights up when she speaks of her sports journey. But her smile disappears when she stands on her prosthetics in front of the blue table, focused and ready to speedily hit the ball with utmost precision.

The young athlete, with black hair cut to the neck, discovered her love for the game at the age of 10 when a trainer visited her house looking to form a local Paralympic team. Her family was initially hesitant and cautioned her, predicting that she would be exhausted and “wouldn’t achieve anything”. But the warnings did not stop her.

“When I first started, I saw other people with disabilities playing sports despite losing limbs,” she said. She admired their positive energy. “They were always smiling, which encouraged me.” After six months of intensive training, Najlah played her first match in a local Baghdad tournament. “I won,” exclaimed Najlah. “I was the surprise of the competition.”

A first triumph fuelled her passion, and she became a fierce competitor. Over the years, Najlah has participated in 30 international tournaments, winning medals and trophies, which she proudly displays on a shelf in her modest home.

In 2021, she went to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games, and in 2023, she won a golden medal in the 2022 Asian Para Games in China. A rising star, Iraq’s Paralympic committee provides Najlah with a modest monthly stipend and travel expenses to competitions when the budget allows it.

Najlah trains twice a week in Baquba and another two days in Baghdad with her father by her side. She also travels abroad to practice ahead of international competitions taking advantage of better sports facilities. In March, she travelled to Qatar to prepare for the Paris Paralympics in August. “I always aim for gold,” Najlah said. — AFP

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