If one man’s story truly encompasses the renowned surfing vibe of togetherness, peace, and an appreciation of the natural world, it’s Afridun Amu.
The first Afghan to internationally represent his nation in surfing embraces what he describes as the “magic” of not only the sport itself, but the living-for-now philosophy, appreciation of the natural environments that are his playground, and the camaraderie of fellow wave chasers.
But more than that, Amu has a deep understanding of how the ‘hook’ of his story, of originating from a land-locked war-torn country to living an idyllic surfer’s life, can be a vessel of hope for his compatriots. Not just in watching his own story play out on the global stage – Amu has been competing internationally at the ISA World Surfing Games since 2017 – but also in keeping a focus on his troubled nation.
“I guess for most of the athletes who have a sport that is in the Olympics, being an Olympian is a dream,” Amu told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview at the 2022 World Surfing Games, a Paris 2024 qualifier, which took place in California in September. “But for me, it’s much more than just seeing myself as being an Olympian. It’s more like the idea that goes with it for my home country because having Olympians would mean a sort of stability, a sort of peace in Afghanistan.”
A family of political refugees
Amu was born in Kabul in 1987 but fled Afghanistan in 1992 with his family, ending up in Germany as political refugees.
He recalls the “dark, dark age” the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when “sports were forbidden and football stadiums were used for executions.”
After a period of relative stability, 13 months ago the Taliban regained power and Amu admits “the times in Afghanistan are very rough right now. But I hope that step-by-step things are turning better. Maybe. I hope so. At least I can contribute with what I do.”
It was on a trip to France with a friend, aged 18, that Amu discovered the “magic” of surfing. “The first time I went surfing… I completely fell in love. Never before in my life I felt like, ‘Okay, this is it. This is something I want to keep on doing’.” A passion compounded after a stint at university in Sydney, Australia.
Initially on a path in the legal profession, including a period working in Afghanistan on the rule of law, Amu came to a realisation.
“All that time that I worked there, I was never sure if what I doing was actually doing any good. Whereas with my surfing I realised, hey, people are liking this – especially in a country like Afghanistan, where those stories, stories of joy, of hope, unfortunately a little bit scars – so I could see the impact on my compatriots seeing me surfing.”
Changing the narrative
In addition to keeping Afghanistan at the forefront of people’s minds, Amu wants to change the narrative regarding his home nation, “showing the people in the world that Afghanistan is more than just what you get in the news and all the sad stories, and instead show that it’s a beautiful country with beautiful people,” he told us.
A 2018 documentary, Unsurfed Afghanistan, which follows Amu exploring his landlocked country of birth to find a place to surf, scouting streams in the mountains alongside river surfing experts from Canada and Germany, is another way the 35-year-old is leveraging opportunities to showcase his home country’s spectacular natural environment, culture, and people.
“When I went to Afghanistan for the very first surf trip,” says Amu in a social media post, “I saw that magic, that love in the eyes of all the kids that were watching us surfing the river in Afghanistan.”
“It’s a dream come true for me to come on this project and help Afri find where he’s from in his home country of Afghanistan,” river surf expeditioner Jacob Kelly Quinlan says in the film. “To see him travel the world and surf ocean coastlines, is the same connection that all surfers have, but for him to go home now and find waves, that’s something that’s truly special.”
Legends of the sport have rallied to Amu’s cause, eager to help the burgeoning Afghan surfing community and show the struggling population they are in their thoughts.
Eight-time women’s world champion Stephanie Gilmore showcased the Afghanistan flag (below) while Amu has played chess and got to shooting the breeze with 11-time men’s world surfing champ Kelly Slater.
Chris Moore, father of five-time WSL champion Carissa Moore invited Amu and his female compatriot Urzala Weiss to train at surfing mecca Oahu, in Hawaii.
The support of these behemoths who transcend their sport helps Amu in his mission to show the Afghan people they have not been forgotten, and that surfing is a community for all – with or without an ocean.
Travel is also part and parcel of the sport but the much travelled Amu takes time to appreciate the beauty in small things.
“As exciting as it is to find new things, you can get lost in constant change,” he posted in a social media caption in May 2020. “If I’ve learned anything from all the travel, it’s that beauty is everywhere and anytime right in front of you. All it takes to see it is to stop thinking and begin being.”
After surfing made its debut at Tokyo 2020, which took place in 2021, the sport is preparing for its second Olympic outing, at Paris 2024. Qualification is a tough task for Amu, although a trip to Teahupo’o in Tahiti where the event is taking place wouldn’t go amiss. “Let’s call it the dream. Paris, 2024. I would love to,” he smiles. Nevertheless he is “absolutely happy to support the next generation of Afghans to maybe achieve their dream.”
To that end, prior to the resurgence of the Taliban, Amu had set up a project to teach kids in Afghanistan how to swim, being comfortable in the water a precursor to taking up surfing. When it was halted due to the current situation in the country, Amu instead started using surfing to work with refugees.
“We are creating this project where we want to try to help refugees overcoming their traumatic experiences with surfing. It’s called surf therapy, so we will have trained psychologists that are supporting us within this process of teaching them how to surf. I can’t think of anything more special, than they learn how to surf and at the same time having those professional support. I think that could be something.
“We are doing small steps and eventually in a couple of years, we will have Afghan surfers, male and female, representing our country in the Olympics.”
As of last month, Amu became a voice on the world stage as one of four newly elected members to the world surf athletes’ commission, voted by his peers to represent the surfers and “serve their sport outside the water”.
READ: Indonesian surf star Rio Waida: From being bullied to being on top
Peace and sport
The importance of the platform of an Olympic Games is clear for Amu.
“Since the Taliban conquered Afghanistan again, I think it’s even more important to not only surf for my country but actually make the world aware that, hey, Afghanistan is still there.
“And I think the best way to do that is in here in the ISA Games in an Olympic qualifier because for me, the Olympics, it’s not just the big competition, it’s actually something where the world gets together.
“If it would be just for the competition, you can go to world championships. But in the Olympics, it’s more about having all the nations together, meeting each other, caring for each other. So this is what I want to do.”
Amu didn’t book a Paris 2024 Olympic quota berth at the Huntington Beach event, but aims to try again at the 2023 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador.
In an Instagram post in 2020 from his new home in the Portuguese Azores, Amu states, “‘They say, the journey is the reward,” before going on to extol his own interpretation.
“I guess it means: it is not necessarily what we finally encounter at the end of the road – but the infinity of potential how it plays out, that is already part of each and every moment.”
His ultimate wish “is that maybe something good comes out for Afghanistan and for all of the other countries that are having a difficult time right now, with the power of sports, because I do believe that sports has the power of peace, especially surfing.”
READ: How to qualify for surfing at Paris 2024