Three refugees, one Olympic shooting champion and a story of undying hope

Taking Refuge: The story of renaissance through sport (4:09)

Three-time Olympic gold medallist Niccolo Campriani's efforts to get three refugees to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics (4:09)

Across the Swiss canton of Vaud, at some point every day, in three different households, there will be three people, two women and a man, standing staring at a white wall. Not metaphorically, due to a lockdown-induced daze, but actually. Purposefully. Staring at the wall. Because that's what they need to do more of.

What's important here for Khaoula, Mahdi and Luna -- those are their names -- is how they're standing, their stance, feet, hips, shoulders. "It's not like you would at a bus stop, OK, sure," their friend Nicco, coach and philosopher-on-call, has told them. It's how they have to learn to stand in the white heat of competition, with mind racing and the ears hammering with blood in the cold silence of an air rifle shooting range.

Over the last year, they have been drawn to the idea of being there, in the biggest competition of them all. Today, April 15, would have been 100 days to their mighty voyage, with selections on the line, expectations tighter. Except now they must wait and discover even more. Of themselves, their capacities and capabilities. So they will stand and stare at the wall, seeking It. The stance so perfect, so stable, that the 5-ish kg rifle feels weightless through their wrists and arms, spines arched backward in the biomechanically awkward S-shape of the air rifle shooter, with the stance doing the work for them. It is a drill called "dry firing," and to perfect it, they must reach into a quality that they share.


Which wears down everything -- fear, pain, loss. They know it in their bones because it is patience that has got them this far, to altered lives and living. Trying to master hours of 'dry firing' then, with the luxury of 'boredom' having been given another year of opportunities? No issues. Nicco shouldn't be surprised if he finds them smiling a little during their drill.

Khaoula, Luna and Mahdi live in Switzerland under the bureaucratic ID tag of Refugees, one of the 3.5 million asylum seekers among the UNHCR's daunting total of 25 million refugees. Until March last year, they didn't know each other. Until "Nicco", aka Niccolo Campriani, three-time Olympic gold medallist (the only rifleman to win two golds in a single Games), and his impossible idea found them through a flyer pushed into their mailboxes. Which became a meeting at a Starbucks in Lausanne. Which had them end up as the three selected for a programme called Taking Refuge. Which aimed to create out of thin air and desire, three Olympic-standard 10m air rifle shooters from Vaud's refugee population. As Campriani is fond of saying, "a consequence of a consequence of a consequence."

Inside 500 days, they were to be trained in a sport they knew nothing of, get past the Olympics' Minimum Qualifying Score (MQS) -- 595 out of 645 in official competition -- and make pitch for selection on the IOC's refugee team for the Tokyo Olympics. Starting July 24, 2020.

Except now, everything's changed.

The calendar has shifted forward by 364 days. The trio being fast-tracked to an Olympics now have time to draw a breath, deliberate and take careful steps, the odds in their favour. Like Campriani did for his own Olympic campaign, methodically. After "Taking Refuge's" race against the clock, method dancing with madness, the scales today are evenly balanced.

Campriani calls the postponement a "game-changer" for his three shooters. The last time they met in person at the World Archery Excellence Centre (told you, madness) there were only rumours. When the announcement came, the rookie shooters were told that Refuge was not going to stop. "We are committed to it, we are going to do it. From their point of view, it's one more year of training... they can definitely improve significantly. For them on the sport side, it's more than OK." Campriani says. "I can train and I can improve. I can be more prepared for the Games." Which is where the dry-firing drills come in. And finding ways and means to fill an extra year with richer learning.

It is not as if the year gone by wasn't marked with upheaval for the three, but it was of the kind that carried discovery and promise. Taking Refuge was to turn the three chosen ones from mere statistics to real people with names, faces and futures. Their invisible statelessness was stood to the side and they were promised a transformation into something close to athletic godliness -- that larger-than-life figure of the Olympian. To wait another year in fact takes them closer there. For one of them it has become an opportunity reborn.

In December, Khaoula and Mahdi had visited Bangalore for a week. They trained at a shooting range created jugaad-style out of what was once a dumping ground at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence. They were tested at its Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre (TPC), met leading Indian shooters, spoke on stage, and were feted by an audience of 800 at the SLK Software headquarters, at a sponsor's event. Luna, the African among the three, we were told then, had not travelled to Bangalore as she was 'unwell'. The news around her remained sketchy and the programme appeared to be racing ahead of Luna. By the time they arrived in Bangalore, Mahdi had already made the MQS after the first plane ride of his life at the Asian Championship in Doha. In February this year, Khaoula got there at the European Championships in Wroclaw, western Poland and also docked her personal best.

Luna's name somehow remained missing. When Campriani was asked about her this month, he laughs, the delight in his voice down the phone. "She's had a baby," he says, "a boy, about two weeks ago." That then was the backdrop of her 'not being well'. The postponed Olympics had become "a chance for Luna to come back or otherwise she would have been out. Quite incredible circumstances ... we've never had a postponement."

"Taking Refuge" is today a project suffused with renaissance, renewal, reinvention. Both for the shooters involved and Campriani and the team around him. Be it Irina Gladkikh, IOC official, former sports director of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics who handles bureaucratic and logistical roadblocks with her wrecking-ball purpose. Or Bindra himself, deeply committed and attached to the mission, who gets stuck into fund-raising and working out training and fitness programmes. Or Juan Carlos Holgado, 1992 Olympic champion, director of the gargantuan Lausanne World Archery Excellence Centre who ensured a makeshift shooting range was created amidst bows and arrows. It's now called "Nicco's Corner."

In the trailer of the "Taking Refuge" documentary currently being made by the Olympic Channel, Mahdi says, "Refugees are humans like any other human. The difference between a refugee and a normal person is just the story of their home." En route to India last year, Khaoula's visa application form required a "purpose of visit" filled in. It said "athlete training." Gladkikh says, "She was so happy it said 'athlete'. It is in her travel document now, a description: athlete." Something else other than the R word -- refugee, the flotsam and jetsam of global political upheaval.

They don't reveal too much of their past, because they worry about family back home. In order for Mahdi to compete in his first event in Italy, Gladkikh moved contacts, emails and mountains. She extracted for him the first official document of recognition of Mahdi, 21, even existing -- in the form of an Afghan passport. From the time he was a child, he had walked thousands of miles on foot across land, from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey before reaching Switzerland with only memories of who he was and where he came from, but no papers. He grew into adulthood, tossed about by the fates, much like the scattered dandelion seeds that make up "Refuge's" beautiful logo. It was through the sport of rifle shooting that Mahdi has dug roots into himself.

The tight-knit "Refuge" community, bubbling with positivity and the invitation to keep dreaming, has become the foundation of their new lives. Talking to ESPN in Bangalore, Mahdi had said, "I didn't think that I could ever be an Olympic athlete. But I think always one day I can do something different -- for my country, for my family. I have this dream always. When I go to bed, I sleep with this dream."

Khaoula, who chooses to describe herself only as an Arab woman, who once practised karate, said shooting had changed her enormously. "It has given me a lot of things -- confidence." Gladkikh says, "Khaoula told us she is now brave, she is not afraid of anything. Before she was afraid of everything."

With a year more to work with, Campriani would like to get the trio registered in shooting clubs near their homes, "it's important to expand the community -- and to find a sustainable solution for whatever happens after the Games." His coaching will continue but he jokes, "they will finally have someone else to talk to. Other shooters, other athletes." The clubs will mean regular competition, official scores and preparing for international competition whenever it should begin, even if only in 2021.

For the moment, the WhatsApp chatter is every day, conference calls are twice or thrice a week, and a weekend session of distance training and exercises also planned online with Digpal Ranawat, director of the Bindra TPC, and his staff. Under lockdown, Campriani is often haring about in his car, dropping off extra groceries at the shooters' homes. For Mahdi, who lives on his own and is a metal construction worker now dealing with a locked-down workplace, the gift of a Lego Technic set has helped fill time. The pandemic, says Campriani, has left the shooters, "a little bit lost in that they are here without their [extended] families. It is difficult for everybody to be alone in these circumstances and that is why we try to stay together as a team. We try to look out for each other."

During a bleak, terrifying global lockdown, it is sport that has given these strangers an intimacy and warmth that compresses distance and has forever altered not just their stories, but themselves.