By Donna Yawching ~

Muhammad Ali Rafiq poses with his collection of athletic medals for badmintonFifty is the age when most folks start thinking of slowing down. Successful, settled, comfortable—this is the time to relax and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of hard work.

Not so for Muhammad Ali Rafiq. A year and a half ago, the successful entrepreneur sold off his business interests in Faisalabad, in the northern Pakistani province of Punjab, and moved his family to Toronto. “I feel that I started my new life at 50,” says Rafiq, now 53. “When we start anything new, we need to work hard. I am sure I can face this challenge because all my life, I have been facing challenges.”

A soft-spoken, modest man, Rafiq is understating his case. His particular challenges began when he contracted polio as an infant, which left him with a withered leg and a childhood of ostracism. He was jeered at school and shunned in the playground, his peers impatient with his inability to keep up. As he grew up, he was treated with pity. Meanwhile, at home, while there was sympathy, the main message was: “Don’t do this,
don’t do that. Your leg is weak and you will fall down. You need to stay at home.”

“I would sit alone all day,” Rafiq recalls. “And I thought, [This is] not a life; it’s better to die. I have to do something.”

And so, in a decision that would change his life forever, he did something. The teenaged Rafiq turned to sports, embracing a strict regimen of physiotherapy and got involved in powerlifting, swimming, karate and—of all things—badminton. “After a few years,” he says proudly, “you could say I was like a bright sun.”

Soon he was winning local badminton competitions. His first significant victory came in 1977, when he won first prize as “a special person”—a common Pakistani term for the disabled—in a regional tournament in Sargodha in Punjab.

But day-to-day life curtailed his sporting career: he was also struggling to make a living. On a bicycle or motorbike, he would visit textile factories, purchase bolts of cloth, pile them onto the back of his bike and then ride home to sell the fabrics at a roadside stall. He worked from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Marriage at the age of 23 imposed more obligations. He has four sons—the oldest is now 27; the youngest, 18. There was little time for sports. He didn’t resume competitive badminton until 1992, and in 1994 he won bronze at the 6th FESPIC (Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled) Games in Beijing.

That was the beginning of a veritable shower of bronze, silver and gold medals, nationally and abroad. He won gold at Pakistan’s first National Paralympic Games in 1998, silver at FESPIC in 1999 and then gold again in 2000 at the Dutch International Badminton Championship in Holland. In 2004 he triumphed in both the singles and doubles categories at the 1st National Paralympic Badminton Championship, held in

Meanwhile, Rafiq’s business ventures was prospering. He owned several fabric shops and shares in a textile factory, as well as a large, well-appointed home. He was also emerging as a local one-man United Way, helping indigent disabled people whenever he could.

His philanthrophic efforts progressed from assisting individuals—donating an artificial leg, a sewing machine, money for food and education—to village development projects and mass donations of care packages to disabled people in impoverished rural areas. “Because I am disabled I feel [that] disabled persons all over the world are my family members,” says Rafiq. But he is adamant that disability need not mean failure and despair. “Disability is nothing if someone has a strong mind.”

What then impelled him to apply in 2003 to immigrate to Canada? “Security,” he responds. “I was doing business, and in the culture of Pakistan you [don’t] have any safety—personal or business safety. I heard about Canada, that it’s a really peaceful country. I wanted to move here for a better future for my children.”

It was, he admits, “a big risk for everybody, especially for a businessman.” The first few months after their arrival in 2008 were difficult. Initially, they stayed with Pakistani friends. “I didn’t have any business, my sons had no friends, I had no family members here,” he explains. “Those months were very disheartening—searching for jobs, my money going down fast.”

But Rafiq is a determined man. He eventually bought a convenience store near the Danforth and is now actively looking for other investment opportunities, preferably in textiles. His sons help out in the store and the two older ones work part-time at Tim Hortons and 7-Eleven.

He has had his family’s full support. He describes his wife, Azra, a sweet-faced woman with mischievous dark eyes, as “the Home Minister”—the backbone that has held things together. In limited English, she confirms her approval of her husband’s decision. “Very happy to be in Canada,” she says, smiling.

Now the only thing missing in Rafiq’s life is badminton. He yearns to be involved in the sport again—to compete, to coach, to contribute his skill to his new country. In January he began coaching a highschool team, but deep in his heart, he wants to play. “I want to take my part in Canada in sports, especially sports for the disabled,” he says. “This is my mission.”

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