US wrestling community helps rebuild bombed gym

Last September, ISIS terrorists delivered back-to-back suicide bombings at a wrestling club in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 26 and wounding 91. Among the dead: 16 young wrestlers.

In subsequent months, the U.S. wrestling community stepped forward with donations of money and equipment to bring the Maiwand Wrestling Club back to life. These efforts have received positive coverage from non-wrestling media, including a 1,000-word feature in the New York Times which ran during the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, and just this week, The Stars and Stripes, which describes itself as "the U.S. military's independent news source."

To provide a sense of the severity of the two bombings: On the day of the attack -- September 3, 2018 -- Ghulam Abbas, a 52-year-old coach at the Maiwand Wrestling Club for nearly three decades, held the steel-plated door closed so the bomber couldn't enter the main wrestling room. The terrorist then detonated his explosives on the other side of the door from Abbas. When the coach awoke in the hospital the next day, his left arm was missing. (A handful of others are still recovering from critical injuries.)

"We were doing nothing wrong here, we were teaching people how to wrestle, how to be healthy and be a good person in the community," Abbas told the Stars and Stripes' Phillip Walter Wellman. "We are building the community, but they are coming and killing us."

In the days following the attack, the New York Times provided coverage that drew the attention of two ex-wrestlers: Paul Halsey, 69, a former IBM executive … and Hooman Tavakolian, 42, an Iranian-American investment manager in New York and London, who is active in United World Wrestling and USA Wrestling.

To rebuild the Maiwand Wrestling Club in Kabul, Tavakolian launched a GoFundMe page … while Halsey contacted Times' journalist Fatima Faizi who forwarded requests from readers who wanted to help, "many of those were current or former wrestlers."

"Eventually, Mr. Halsey and Mr. Tavakolian found each other and pooled their efforts," according to Faizi's March 20 New York Times feature. "Wrestling teams at universities like Penn State and Iowa kicked in; so did Nike, Adidas and the wrestling equipment supplier Cliff Keen. Wrestlers at an American private school contributed."

"In all, they raised more than $10,000 in cash, Mr. Tavakolian said, which along with donated gear was enough to rebuild Maiwand. He said there was even money to spare for other Afghan wrestling clubs."

As Tavakolian -- who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran as a child during the Iran-Iraq war and later wrestled for New York's Hunter College -- told Stars and Stripes, "If you want to make the world a better place, it's better to develop young kids than try to fix men."

"So that's our mission -- to develop brighter futures. If it keeps kids from straying into organized crime and terrorist groups, it could help keep our servicemembers safe too."

To show appreciation for the donations of wrestling mats, singlets and other equipment, the Maiwand Wrestling Club held a ceremony last month, according to Stars and Stripes.

"Wrestling is a sport that requires great sacrifice and also helps young wrestlers channel their emotions in a positive way," as Halsey explained his desire to help the wrestling club half a world away to the New York Times. "The tragedy connected me to them in a very personal way."

The Maiwand Wrestling Club head coach, Maalim Abbas, said of those who contributed to the rebuilding of his facility, "They all believe we need to show the terrorists that they can kill us, but they can't stop us."

Want to know more about Hooman Tavakolian and his efforts to support wrestling around the world? Check out Craig Sesker's Sept. 2016 InterMat profile on Tavakolian.


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MLJ (1) about 8 months ago
Kudos! This is such great news.