Dorsa Yavarivafa: A Refugee’s Journey of Olympic Dreams

November 16, 2023

In the world of sports, tales of determination and steadfast spirit often stand out as the most inspiring. Dorsa Yavarivafa‘s journey from her birthplace in Iran to her dream of becoming a badminton champion is one such story. Born in Tehran, her life took an unexpected turn when, due to safety reasons, they were forced to flee the country. Her father, a semi-professional table tennis player who had introduced her to badminton at the age of nine, had to stay behind.

Yavarivafa’s love for badminton blossomed early in life. Guided by her father, she tried various sports but yearned for an individual one, ultimately choosing badminton. She reminisces, “I immediately fell in love with badminton. I believed I could really do this in the future. But, at that moment, I was playing just for fun, not taking it seriously.” Little did she know that her passion for the sport would become her guiding light through the darkest of times.

In Iran, she was a formidable talent, regularly clinching gold medals in women’s singles events. “Everything was going perfectly. I kept winning gold medals. Then I progressed to higher-level tournaments. After that, I took it more seriously and began competing in international tournaments in Iran,” she recalls. However, this idyllic life came to an abrupt halt when her family had to leave Iran due to safety concerns. Her father remained behind, leaving Yavarivafa and her mother on a perilous journey in search of asylum and refuge.

“We were not safe in Iran,” she says, recounting the harrowing experience that led her and her mother to traverse from Iran to Turkey, then to France, and finally to England. “It was hard because I wondered, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I had trained so hard in Iran. I didn’t have my badminton racket. I was struggling mentally, but the priority was to find a place of safety for my mum and I.”

Language became a barrier in this new land as she didn’t speak much English. “It was so hard for me to communicate with people. It wasn’t good at all.” However, her indomitable spirit refused to be subdued. She began learning English and eventually discovered a badminton club in Birmingham. There, she met Lorraine Cole, the 2006 European Senior Champion and women’s doubles player, who would become her coach. Despite her limited English skills, her determination spoke volumes, and Cole understood her, offering an opportunity to train.

With permanent residency confirmed in England aged 16 and pursuing her studies in college, Yavarivafa’s journey was gradually inching toward a new horizon. Thereafter, she moved to London, where fate intervened. She reconnected with a coach from her Iranian past, leading to an introduction to Olympic badminton player Kaveh Mehrabi who suggested she could become part of the Olympic Refugee Team. Mehrabi played a pivotal role in ensuring she met all the right people to pursue her Olympic goal.

Her dream was within reach. Mehrabi, now the Athletes’ Department Director at the IOC, supported her with the Refugee Athlete scholarship. “I heard the word ‘Olympics’ and I thought ‘Yes! I want that. That’s what I want to do.’ Kaveh helped me a lot. He understood me.”

The Refugee Athlete Scholarships are funded by the IOC through its Olympic Solidarity programme and provide athletes with financial support for training and competition in the lead-up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, giving the athletes a chance of being selected for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

The Iranian recently competed at the Middlesex Senior Gold Tournament 2023 where she lost in the first round in women’s singles, but winning wasn’t the main purpose of the tournament for the 19-year-old as she was reunited with her father after five years.

“My dad has never seen me compete. There are laws in Iran prohibiting men from watching women in sports. The tournament in Middlesex was the first time he had ever watched me. I think he was more stressed than me,” she laughed. “I did get very emotional watching him watch me.”

Yavarivafa carries a message of hope for refugees worldwide: “Anything is possible. Never lose hope.”