Super-heavyweight Reza Rouhi, who is now living in London after fleeing Iran, is one of two members of the IWF's Refugee Team who fear missing the World Championships due to bureaucracy ©YouTube

Two members of the weightlifting refugee team are in despair about the prospect of missing the biggest event of their "new" careers.

The Team was set up by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) this year with the aim of helping seven displaced people from around the world to compete at its flagship event, the World Championships in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in September.

All seven are entered but two are living in refugee hotels in England and desperately hoping for good news from the Home Office in London.

Their status does not allow Reza Rouhi, a super-heavyweight who arrived in Britain from Iran, and Clementine Meukeugni from Cameroon to leave the country.

"I’m getting frustrated, feeling hopeless," said Rouhi, 28, who was taught in his early years by one of Iran’s all-time greats, the double Olympic champion Hossein Rezazadeh.

Rouhi, 28, totalled 398 kilograms as a teenager at a competition in Turkey in 2014, and has personal bests of 190-230-420.

"When I joined the team [in April] my passion for weightlifting was as strong as ever, but if I can’t go to the World Championships I might stop lifting," Rouhi told insidethegames via a translator - his coach Kazem Panjavi, who had to wait six years for his British passport when he moved from Iran in 1995 and now runs a successful gym in London.

"I have done weightlifting all my life, my dream has always been to go to the Olympic Games, but I am feeling low because of this, it could be over."

Panjavi, who lifted at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona for Iran, said, "I’m worried about him.

"He graduated in physical education and can coach, but he is not allowed to work here until he gets the right papers from the Home Office, he just sits in his refugee hotel near Heathrow when he’s not training.

"I understand how frustrating it is because I have been in the same situation when I came here years ago.

"We have had support from the IWF, and from Matthew Curtain at British Weight Lifting [an IWF Board member] who have written to the Home office, but they have been told just to wait."

Clementine Meukeugni, winner of a Commonwealth Games bronze medal for Cameroon at Gold Coast 2018, is another member of the IWF Refugee Team stuck in London ©Getty Images
Clementine Meukeugni, winner of a Commonwealth Games bronze medal for Cameroon at Gold Coast 2018, is another member of the IWF Refugee Team stuck in London ©Getty Images 

Rouhi has been in Britain, where he arrived via Spain, since late last year.

Meukeugni is also in a refugee hotel, about 80 miles west of London in Swindon.

"The last email from Home Office told me I just had to wait," she said.

Meukeugni, 33, who won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal at Gold Coast in 2018 and lifted at the re-arranged 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo for Cameroon, finishing 11th at 87kg, is happy with the training support she gets from the weightlifting refugee team.

"I am always in touch with our refugee coach Patric [Bettembourg], who looks after me online, and I am training in Swindon at the Ensemble club.

“I would be very sad not to be able to go to the World Championships.

“It hurts me very much that I was unable to meet the others in the refugee team in Sweden for the training camp, but I threw my heart in with them despite my absence.”

That training camp, which ended earlier this month, was hosted and sponsored in Halmstad by the equipment manufacturer Eleiko.

Three of the seven refugees were unable to go because they did not have a travel permit, and two who flew in from the United States were not sure they could travel until two hours before their journey was due to begin.

Besides Rouhi and Meukeugni, Yemeni Fawaz Mohammed Saleh Hussein could not get a travel permit but as he is seeking permanent residency in Saudi Arabia, he will have no problem competing at the IWF World Championships.

Those who did make it to Halmstad included Parisa Jahanfekrian, who qualified for Tokyo 2020 at 87kg for Iran but moved to Germany when she was not allowed to compete after criticising her National Federation.

Addriel Garcia is now part of the IWF Refugee Team after leaving Cuba to live in Italy ©Getty Images
Addriel Garcia is now part of the IWF Refugee Team after leaving Cuba to live in Italy ©Getty Images

Addriel Garcia, originally from Cuba and now living in Italy, was also there, as were the two Brazilians who got the good news in the US just before they headed for the airport.

They are 23-year-old Aline de Souza and 30-year-old Monique Lima, who both won continental medals for Brazil but have not competed for seven years.

Araujo said, "The green card arrived on the day of travel.

"It came by special delivery at 5.20 in the morning and we had planned to leave at 7.30.

"We called the IWF person and said, 'Hey, we’re gonna go.'

"It was amazing, that was God. It was really, really, really crazy.

"Our lawyer said we were so lucky; we cried and ran to go to the airport.

"The training camp was incredible, the first time I trained like this in my life.

"It wasn’t about just results, good numbers, it was about every athlete’s situation, we all supported each other in a way I never experienced before.

"We all have different histories, passed through a lot of hard situations, Parisa, Adriel, my history with Aline, and now we can tell people, ‘Never give up.’

"The people from Eleiko and IWF were fantastic, the best support I had in my life and the best programme I have ever had in my career.

"I had a feeling in my heart that something good would happen and it did.

"Patric pushed me, and Aline and Parisa had personal records in training.

"We got our confidence back."

A special training camp sponsored by Eleiko for the IWF Refugee Team was held recently in Halmstad in Sweden ©Eleiko
A special training camp sponsored by Eleiko for the IWF Refugee Team was held recently in Halmstad in Sweden ©Eleiko

Coach Bettembourg, son of the multiple world record holder and 1972 Olympic bronze medallist Hans Bettembourg, was born in Germany and moved to Sweden, where he is the national youth and junior coach.

He has worked with refugees before, and said of the training camp, "We shared many happy moments and many hard stories, but the most important in the end is that we became a real team.

"I have never met a group of athletes behaving so well and supporting each other so much - what an amazing group of lifters."

The team came into existence only six months after the idea was first raised at an IWF Board meeting last year and is completely separate from the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) refugee team.

The original rules were that every team member must be “recognised as refugees or beneficiaries of international protection according to the United Nations Refugee Agency” but because of tight deadlines some members were accepted earlier in the process of relocation.

Florian Sperl, leader of the weightlifting refugee team project, said, "We sent several letters in the US, and it was touch and go, but it seems to have worked for Monique and Aline.

"For Reza and Clementine, we have sent letters and emails begging the Home Office to put the papers through, but they say we just have to wait for their decision, and we don’t know when it will come.

“I really feel for them, I know how frustrating it is."

The current project is funded through to the World Championships and Sperl, President of the German Weightlifting Federation and an IWF Board member, promise that he would push the IWF to continue the Refugee Team in future, to make it permanent.

Weightlifting is the third Olympic sport, after athletics and judo, to have its own refugee team.

They are all separate from the IOC Refugee Team that focuses only on competing at the Olympic Games.

Last month the IOC selected the teenage weightlifter Yekta Jamali to join the team - another Iranian who fled to Germany.

Rouhi and Meukeugni will both compete, as guests, at the British Championships in Manchester next month.