On 14 November in Brussels, Disability Sport & Inclusion Advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jess Markt was named the AidEx 2019 Humanitarian Hero of the Year. This is his story and those of the lives he has impacted.

Jess Markt has always been dedicated to sports, playing basketball and competing in his university’s athletics team as a high jumper. At 19, just before returning for his second year, a serious car accident resulted in him becoming paralysed from the chest-down and reliant on getting around with a wheelchair.

In the years that followed Jess discovered wheelchair basketball which became a significant factor in his physical and mental recovery. He went on to play in the United States’ National Wheelchair Basketball Association for a decade, when in 2009 he received an email requesting a volunteer to teach a newly formed team in Afghanistan called Maimana – one of the first two in the country.

Seeing this opportunity as a means of sharing his knowledge and experience with a group of new players, and hopefully expanding their horizons both on and off the court, Jess began a transformative journey.

“That trip – which I went into assuming it would be a one-time-only adventure – completely changed my life. I formed a bond with the young players in Maimana in spite of our many differences and realized that there was much more that could be done to give them and other people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan the opportunity to fulfil their potential as athletes.”

After connecting with the ICRC’s, Physical Rehabilitation Programme (PRP) leader in Afghanistan, Alberto Cairo, discussions began about the possibility of using wheelchair basketball as an extension of the work they were doing with physical rehabilitation for persons with physical disabilities.

Jess coached boys with disabilities who had been told their entire lives how their place was out of sight with no place in society, consequently prescribed to a life on the margins of their communities. Their embrace of wheelchair basketball changed this. Jess saw members of his team grow physically stronger and develop confidence in their new identities as athletes.

Two notable players include Alem, who is now studying to become a physiotherapist, and Ramazan as a lab technician. Representing Afghanistan, they have travelled around the world and led their team to two national championships; a previously unimaginable reality for children who had been told their place was hidden at home.

In 2012 Jess began coaching the very first women’s wheelchair basketball players. At the time, female athletes were rare and completely unheard of in the disabled community – but 20 young women were willing to try. At first anonymously behind screens that obscured the courts so that nobody could see or judge them.

afghan wheelchair basketball2

A year later, the players requested for the screens to be dismantled. The confidence in their abilities had reached a point they wanted more women and girls with disabilities to see their game and show them what is possible.

In 2017 the ICRC established a new position for Jess to take on – he was to run this new programme which now supports sport and inclusion initiatives in 18 conflict-affected countries, with plans to expand the programme to extend as far as 28 more programmes next year.

“I find myself endlessly inspired by the athletes, colleagues and other amazing people with whom I’m fortunate to do this work.”

Jess describes his role as one which he “truly can’t imagine more fulfilling”. The rapid success in the programme means keeping up with the pace of growth can be a challenge as his role has transcended far beyond a “wheelchair basketball coach”. He has developed leagues for people with physical disabilities in some of the world’s most difficult contexts, including South Sudan, Syria, Palestine and Columbia and transformed countless lives through coaching.

Jess’ work reflects a major shift in the ICRC’s standard approach to service provision in the places where it operates, which makes him feel “extremely proud to play a role in its decision to take that on”. The organisation appears to have recognised the power of sport to yield positive outcomes for individuals and communities.

What is it that makes some people more driven to help others and create positive change? Jess believes individually we draw energy from different types of interactions and experiences and for him, it has been playing a part in people’s different transformations that has been most rewarding.

At the heart of inclusion is opportunity, and Jess believes a truly inclusive society will not limit people based on assumed limitations of their social categories. If everyone has the chance to realise their potential, the world can be a better place because of their contributions.

Eight years and many coaching trips later, Afghanistan now has over 600 wheelchair basketball players in 10 provinces, over 150 of which are women. In 2017, the Afghanistan women’s national wheelchair basketball team, which includes several of those original pioneers, won their first international tournament. These women, who just a few short years ago were ignored by anyone who passed them on the streets of their own towns, returned home as national heroes. They were even invited to share tea with the first lady of Afghanistan at the presidential palace.

The message Jess would most like to share following his achievement as the 2019 AidEx Humanitarian Hero is:

“If we can view one another through a prism of empathy and understanding in spite of perceived differences, we will empower each other to do great things to the benefit of all.”

Much of the discourse around disability inclusiveness focuses on innovative tools, healthcare access and disaggregated data, which are all crucial, but very much reliant on proactive national systems and leadership. To really address stigma and discrimination, the most effective programmes appear to be those like the one Jess is driving forward, which are giving people with disabilities a platform to engage and shine within their communities and beyond.