SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Six-year-old Bosnian boy Ismail Zulfic was born without arms and with a deformed foot into a society that often neglects and marginalizes children with disabilities.
But his parents and an inspirational sports instructor have helped him overcome his physical limitations – and a fear of water – to win a gold medal at a regional competition for disabled swimmers and the hearts of many people in the Balkans.
Amel Kapo, a sports graduate, launched the free swimming classes for children with disabilities at a Sarajevo pool without any state support.
“My goal was to bring children with disabilities into the open,” Kapo said. “Yes, their bodies might be different but if you give them an opportunity to prove themselves they know how to take it and use it.”
The club, called Spid, which Kapo founded, remains the only swimming club for children with disabilities in Bosnia.
Zulfic’s parents can hardly afford to drive their son to swimming lessons twice a week from their hometown of Zenica, 70 kilometers (44 miles) north of Sarajevo.
But Spid has been helping cover the cost of fuel and some of the swimming gear with donations they secured from a supportive local company and international aid groups.
Kapo’s efforts got the attention of the Swim Strong Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit group, whose founder Shawn Slevin traveled to Sarajevo to help coach some 50 disabled children from across Bosnia who had joined up over the past year.
“When (disabled children) can see that they can do as anyone else can do, it lifts their confidence level (and) then there is nothing they cannot do,” Slevin said.
It is estimated that 6.5 percent of Bosnian children aged from two to nine years has some kind of disability, but they normally lack basic facilities, such as ramps, support bars or adapted furniture.
When Ismail starts school later this year, he is likely to encounter inaccessible classrooms and teachers who are not trained to work with children like him.
But the 6-year-old already knows that he can win despite odds stacked against him and says that it feels “really nice.”
Right now, he is training hard for the World para-swimming championship to be held in Germany later this year.
Ismail’s father Ismet describes his son as a “real fighter”.
“You can learn a lot from him; you can learn how to appreciate life – your own life but also the lives of others,” he said.