Afghan refugee, now American School for the Deaf student, finds normalcy on the wrestling mats at Avon
Less than two years ago, Ahmadi Sheikeb was in an active warzone. Ahmadi is deaf, so while he was not able to hear the sounds of bombs and gunfire, he had been seeing and feeling the effects of the war in his home country of Afghanistan for most of his young life.
“I can’t emphasize enough how bad the situation was in my city. People were killed in the street, there was always blood everywhere, it was very scary,” Ahmadi shares with the help of his interpreter. “It was very dangerous. I was in fear for my life. Plus, being deaf, I had to leave.”
He says that as U.S. troops were pulling out of the country and Taliban forces began to overrun the capital, Kabul, his home city was thrown into chaos and he was separated from his family. “One of the American officials decided to help me evacuate, but after that there was no plan.”
He says he soon found himself in Qatar, where he was lost and confused, had no sign-language interpreter with him, and was suffering from the extreme heat in the country. From there, Ahmadi made his way to Chicago, before eventually being enrolled at the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford in the spring of 2022.
“I am happy I am here and safe, but I’m very lonely. I have no family here,” Ahmadi says. His parents and eight siblings are still in Afghanistan. He was finally able to get in touch with them, but the phone signal is not very good where they are, so contact has been sporadic.
Minimal contact with his family, limited knowledge of the English language, and being fluent in a form of sign-language that differs slightly from ASL, it’s understandable when Ahmadi says he still feels very alone at times. Insert the Avon Old Farms Brotherhood.
Christopher Di Santo, interim athletic director at ASD, says that one of his goals when he took on the athletic director position was to bring back the programs that ASD was very good at, which includes wrestling. Wrestling also happens to be one of the interests Ahmadi expressed to Di Santo when he first enrolled. Unfortunately, it will take a bit more time to restart the wrestling program at ASD.
Luckily, Di Santo had recently met AOF Assistant Director of Athletics and Head Coach of Varsity Wrestling John Bourgault at a NEPSAC meeting, where the two had discussed the ASD wrestling program.
“I knew it would be a challenge to have a full team, so John suggested that I send a couple of students to join the Avon Old Farms wrestling team as a co-op program. In the fall, I met with my superintendent about having a few students join Avon wrestling, and he gave it a go,” Di Santo explains. “I met with Ahmadi and told him about this plan. He was excited about this opportunity.”
While they were excited, both Ahmadi and Di Santo wanted to make sure it would be a good fit. Before officially joining, Ahmadi, an ASL interpreter, and Di Santo came over to AOF for a visit.
“John gave us a tour and we all had a discussion of how the program would look. Ahmadi thought he would give it a try for a week to see how he would like the wrestling program. After one week, he loved it and wanted to stay on the wrestling team.”
Ahmadi says that he was never able to join an organized wrestling team before, but always loved the sport. He says he and one of his brothers, who also happens to be deaf, would often watch or practice wrestling together at home. He says coming to wrestling practices and matches with the Avon students has been crucial in helping him cope with feeling lonely and homesick.
“Of course, the wrestling part is awesome,” Ahmadi says. “We don’t have to talk. We can get by through gestures. Wrestling is very visual. Technique can be learned visually, with a little help through an interpreter.”
He adds that through feedback from Coach Bourgault and assistant coaches Ben Schloat and Ian Bomely ’14 he has already improved a lot. Di Santo agrees, “He has been an awesome wrestler. John has been fabulous with Ahmadi. The Avon wrestling team has welcomed him like a brother and he has been great since then. He is excited about wrestling each day and would ask what time he would have to leave for practice, matches, and location of the matches.”
Di Santo says the bottom line is to provide Ahmadi with an opportunity and experience that every student-athlete should have. “All I want for him is to have an opportunity to compete and receive an experience he will not forget. This is something that wrestling can give Ahmadi—discipline, character, strength, and to have fun.”
For Ahmadi, his goals are similar: he wants to continue to improve his wrestling abilities and represent ASD well with as many wins as possible. He also says he hopes his brother can soon join him on the team.
Anyone looking to watch Ahmadi and the wrestlers from Avon Old Farms in action can visit the school’s athletics webpage for a full season schedule and more information.