There is an Arabic expression that transcends life’s daily trials, a phrase Zaki Mohsin invokes every day. Its meaning is “God willing,” but its power lies in something more self-reliant — that a little resilience today will yield greater outcomes tomorrow.
Mohsin muttered it upon waking each morning at 3:30 to pray in his family’s 15-person citrus home on the western edge of Kabul. He whispered it before earning accolades across Asia as a rising star in the sport of judo. And he repeated it as his family spent a frantic two weeks uprooting their lives and fleeing Afghanistan, putting Mohsin’s dream of an Olympic gold medal on hold.
Less than three years later, Mohsin, now 19, is a senior at Edison High in Alexandria and one of the region’s most dominant high school athletes in a sport he had never tried before his arrival in Virginia on Sept. 9, 2014. The former judo phenom won a state championship in his first season wrestling for Edison, and he will aim to defend that title Saturday at the 5A state meet at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake.
“This is everything to me,” Mohsin said. “I need to leave everything [on the mat].”
Mohsin has had to adapt to wrestling in the same way he has had to adapt to a new country. It was in 2014 when his father, Zubair, an interpreter for the U.S. coalition forces in 2002, informed him that his family would be moving to America under a Special Immigrant Visa.
But Mohsin’s signature wrestling move is a direct descendant of a maneuver he debuted in judo at age 7. Zubair can recall Mohsin’s first junior national judo tournament in Kabul, when he checked into the championship bout at 33 kilos (roughly 73 pounds) — with eyes nearly as wide as his waifish frame. His opponent was the competition’s two-time defending champ, at least two years older than Mohsin and a head taller. Immediately after the traditional pre-match bow, Mohsin swept his right foot across the giant’s leg, hoisted him over his shoulders and brought him crashing backward to the mat. The match was over in three seconds.
Zubair had sensed his son’s potential when he began tossing opponents like garbage bags on his first day of judo training one year earlier, but the tournament crystallized some bold words from his coach, Yama Samak.
“He was saying to everyone that ‘I can guarantee if Zaki continues judo, one day he will be able to bring the medal from Olympics,’ ” Zubair recalled.
From that day forward, Mohsin’s destiny became tied to making history. Afghanistan has only two Olympic medals, a pair of bronzes won in taekwondo by Rohullah Nikpai at the 2008 and 2012 Games. Zubair hoped his son could achieve gold, and the ensuing years lent traction to the idea.
At age 12, Mohsin won a gold medal at his first international judo tournament in Moscow. He reeled in more medals in Sambo and kurash — martial arts similar to judo — in Uzbekistan, Nepal and Taiwan. He trained for five hours a day, six days a week, before and after school, and competed at training camps in South Korea and Thailand. Eventually, Mohsin became his country’s top-ranked junior judoka.
But with his fame came danger.
‘No hope in Afghanistan’
Mohsin and his then-22-year-old uncle, Zafar, knew that trouble lurked the moment they saw the three men loitering across the darkened side street, their eyes peering out warily from faded scarf masks. Heading back from evening judo practice, Mohsin and Zafar were five blocks from their home in a neighborhood Mohsin said became dangerous after nightfall.
“As soon as they started following us,” Mohsin said, “my uncle was like, ‘Anything I do, you just do it.’ ”
The men stopped them and demanded everything in their pockets. Zafar, now an MMA fighter living in Germany, refused. One man lifted his jacket to reveal a handgun. Another flashed a blade.
Zafar sucker-punched the nearest stranger in the jaw and barreled toward another. Mohsin, then 16, ducked under a punch, grabbed a thigh and shoulder and threw this latest adversary onto his back, knocking the wind out of the third assailant. It was called te-guruma, Mohsin’s favorite judo technique. Mohsin and his uncle escaped unscathed.
Even amid the ever-present dangers, Mohsin’s childhood in Kabul was mostly a happy one. He played soccer, volleyball and video games and rolled around on the mats in the fitness gym owned by his father, a professional bodybuilder.
But violence and fear became too normalized and too close to home for Mohsin’s family in Kabul.
“You’re like, ‘Okay, this happened. Tomorrow again it will happen,’” Mohsin said. “. . . It’s like everybody got used to it.”
By the summer of 2014, Zubair and his wife, Khatera, had had enough. They summoned their four children to deliver some news: They were all moving to the United States in two weeks.
Zubair, now 36, had submitted his application for the Special Immigrant Visa — an expedited visa for Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter — about one year earlier. Kabul’s security situation had been deteriorating, and Zubair had received threats from members of the Taliban.
Zubair survived ambushes as a QRF interpreter working alongside U.S. coalition forces in 2002. In his ensuing 11 years as a manager for USAID Implementing Partners, he hid his face whenever he entered Kabul’s U.S. embassy, telling curious acquaintances he was a driver or a cleaner whenever they asked.
“I said, ‘There is no hope in Afghanistan,’ ” Zubair recalled telling his devastated mother. “ ‘My kids are not safe. Maybe someday those bad guys will kidnap my kids.’ ”
Zaki Mohsin, meanwhile, was equally stunned. He had been preparing for that fall’s Asian Games, where a medal would have made him Afghanistan’s first judo selection for the Rio 2016 Games. Zubair gave him the option to continue his preparation.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Zaki said. “ ‘Of course I’m coming.'”
A quick study
About five weeks after arriving in Richmond, Mohsin found himself at the center of a wrestling mat at J.R. Tucker High. Weeks of GPS searches for judo studios had proved fruitless, so he decided to try his hand at a new sport.
J.R. Tucker Coach Kevin Mable lined up all 17 of his wrestlers from smallest to biggest and had each face the 160-pound Afghan with broken English, one by one.
“He either threw or pinned or beat every single kid on the team,” Mable said.
Mohsin came one match short of state tournament qualification that season — his 14-5 lead with 12 seconds remaining in the regional quarterfinal match was wiped away after he body-slammed his helpless opponent — but in his first season at Edison last winter, he won conference, region and state championships.
“I have never in my life had a kid who has gone from wrestling essentially two years and then is a state champion,” said Edison Coach Scott Racek, now in his 26th year as a wrestling coach. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mohsin is interested in college wrestling, and several programs — such as Virginia Tech, Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania — have shown interest in him, too. But he is in his final year of high school wrestling eligibility, and he needs one more year of classes to obtain enough credits to graduate.
His Olympic judo dream, meanwhile, still burns. He hopes to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Games, but while it would be six years after his arrival to the United States, he is not sure what country he would represent. Mohsin’s family’s visas remain secure, and they are on track to apply for citizenship in the next three years.
For now, Mohsin has a singular focus. When he takes the high school wrestling mat one last time Saturday at Oscar Smith, it won’t matter where he is from or what he has seen or where he will go. He will be thinking only one thing: Fight and move on.