Athlete Ambassador to Pakistan and the United States – Tennis Pro Hassan Akmal Survives Afghanistan Experience and Continues to be a Leader

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Feature Untold Story: Invitation Relief's Nonprofit President and Founder, Hassan Akmal, is building a magnificent legacy.

Hassan Akmal, an American Pakistani at the young age of 28, was almost kidnapped last summer while conducting his internship/practicum with Plan Pakistan (Plan International) for Columbia University on the Kandahar and Chaman border. He is pursuing his Masters in Public Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in the Department of Population and Family Health - Forced Migration and Refugee Health, with a Focus in Epidemiology . Witnesses say that Hassan entered a store in the markets of Chaman, Quetta, an area recognized very much as a tribal area, with his co-researchers after conducting focus groups in the refugee camps when he was approached by several armed men. After buying a bottle of water, these armed men proceeded to take his wallet and attempted to kidnap him before he escaped out the front door of the store.

“They probably wanted to hold me ransom to the Pakistan Tennis Federation”, Hassan said. “They were like – you’re the squash player and said they had seen me on TV”, Hassan added with a smile.

After receiving his Bachelors of Arts in History and Bachelors of Science in Biochemistry, also completing a minor in Arabic from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Hassan turned pro in tennis. Hassan, a top 350 player in the world, came to New York to try to qualify for the US Open when he received admission to one of the top graduate programs in the nation at Columbia University. Struggling financially to cover his coaching, airfare, housing, entry fees, etc. (amounting to almost $75,000/year), in spite of his pro contracts with Adidas and Prince, he decided to take some time off to finish his studies.

“As an American Pakistani, people don't realize you can still struggle even though you're living in the states and that you need an enormous amount of support to seriously compete on the pro tour. Unfortunately, I don't have all that money. I have received a lot of moral support, even personal encouragement from Hakeem Olajuwon and a personal letter from Muhammad Ali, however, I don't have the financial support.

After recently graduating, Hassan has put tennis on hold. “It is a chapter of my life that I hope to finish some day”, he says. He may be going back on the ATP pro tour and join his good friends Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi, Aqeel Khan, Asim Shafik, Hameedul Haq, and Rashid Malik on the Pakistan Davis Cup Team, a rising team who just recently lost a close 3-2 loss to India. “I wish I could have been there with all my heart”, Hassan says, who currently is working three jobs in New York City. In addition, he is modeling, playing the South Asian "Joey" on the South Asian show “Friends”, emceeing events such as the Miss India pageants, and hosting the American Desi Make-Over Show.

Hassan decided to pursue the MD/MPH dual graduate degree after meeting a street child in Lahore, Pakistan while training for the upcoming Davis Cup Tie in 1999. He got extremely ill before the match and was unable to compete. “It was the first time I returned home to Pakistan after 15 years. It was 120 degrees and extremely humid. I wasn't used to the conditions and it was nearly impossible to even hold the racket with the amount of sweat dripping from my hands.”

“He is the best tennis player in the world who's not competing”, says Cuyler Negler, former tennis champion in Fresno, California and part-time coach of Hassan. “He has a strength, drive, and power that must come from his faith, I have never seen anything like it before. He's a natural and self-taught. It's breathtaking at times to see him perform. There is something really special about him. Unfortunately, people need to stop discouraging him and telling him to go to medical school. He has proved everyone wrong thus far and has a bright future if given the funds and opportunity again. It's sad to see such a talent being held back that many are unaware of”.

Community service has been a top priority for the young man, even while traveling as a tennis player. He was worked with a wide array of organizations such as UNICEF and Plan International.

After reflecting on the experience in Afghanistan , I could see the face of Hassan's change. “It was a bit traumatizing”, Hassan commented, “but not discouraging. There were 1.6 million refugees there. I saw the desperation in their faces and dozens of rock graves on my way to the refugee camps. After what happened to me, I had nightmares for a good six months.”

Over the past 15 years, Hassan's motivation and desire have been shaped and enlarged by the memory of my father’s wise counsel, who passed away when Hassan was only eleven years old. Hassan had always dreamed of following a path that would assess and identify disparities in access to health care, quality of health care, and health status for these groups of people in Pakistan as a child. These dreams confirmed his will to pursue his degree at Columbia University, because it was the only program that focused on the relationship between Forced Migration and Refugee Health.

Hassan, who was forced to take an emergency flight out of Quetta days after the incident, has been a tennis sensation all his life. Hassan joined the #1 Nationally Ranked Division One U.C.L.A. Men's Tennis Team and Pac-10 and National Indoor Champions in 1997 after being the #1 Ranked Junior Tennis Player in Central California from the ages 12-18. In 1999, he was invited to join the Pakistani National Davis Cup Team and compete in the Group II Play-offs against China, with many people regarding him as the most talented Pakistani tennis player in history, along with Rahoon Rahim, who played #2 when Jimmy Connors was #3 at UCLA and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan't current #1 player ranked 437 in the world.

“The system is corrupted there, so obviously the police cut a deal with the money they stole from me and let them go”, Hassan said. “But my father would be proud of my refugee efforts.” His father bought his first racquet for him at the age of 11, the same year his father passed away. His father's tutelage instilled a love in him of serving others that still endures to this day. Hassan wishes to discover, extract, and uncover what he has learned by helping to give back to the community, what it has graciously given him – hope and direction. “People don't realize that in the blueprints of reconstruction and relief, we must consider our responsibilities to the needy and their rights over us”, he added.

In addition to helping to teach a two-week humanitarian relief course in Afghanistan, Hassan's previous and ongoing research was under Dr. Ronald Waldman, his academic advisor and the Director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health. The focus was on the importance of children’s emotional and physical security before, during, and after times of war, and how family separation, risk of neglect, military recruitment, sexual assault, and other abuses can have a devastating psychosocial impact on them, as well as the vulnerabilities, that go along with the topic. The essential goals of the research were to provide solutions, ideas, and assistance to families while preventing separations during conflicts.

Hassan, who is also a pro certified personal trainer at New York Sports Club at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and a licensed phlebotomist, is one of only 50 athlete ambassadors selected from all over the world to become a Right to Play/Olympic Aid International Athlete Ambassador. Hassan represents Pakistan and the United States and was nominated and accepted as an International Olympic Aid (Right to Play) International Athlete Ambassador, and invited to attend the Right to Play Athlete Training Forum in New York City on April 22nd and April 23rd, 2003. The prestigious invitation was to some of the top professional and Olympic athletes from all over the world including Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky. The forum was held in conjunction with the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University under the leadership of Dr. Allan Rosenfield, Jeffrey Sachs of the Millennium Development Goals Project, and Mark Malloch-Brown of UNDP. As a Right to Play Athlete Ambassador, he has signed an agreement to uphold his positive image as a sportsperson and role model and aid Right to Play and its implementing partners in the promotion of sport for health initiatives and events across Pakistan and the United States. Hassan is launching a Sport for Development Project for disadvantaged children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS at the Arthur Ashe Stadium - Kid’s Day U.S. Open 2007. He calls it, “The Right to Play Tennis”, and the project will include children from underserved areas from all over New York. Others to be invited to support the HIV/AIDS project are Magic Johnson, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, and Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand.

As the Project Coordinator for research on the correlation of methamphetamines to HIV/AIDS here in NYC and STAR*DOT (Support for Treatment Adherence Readiness and Directly Observed Therapy) , he is testing the effectiveness of increasing adherence with HIV medications among HIV-infected persons who are also taking methadone to treat opiod dependence. The study also explores possible resistances to HIV medications while providing the subjects with adequate compensation and free substance and adherence counseling.

"I lost 3000 dollars. I couldn't put the cash anywhere because the cleaning staff was going through my suitcases when I wasn't there, and now it also turns out that a lot of my clothes were stolen", Hassan said when asked about his losses. "The police investigated and put them in jail at one point, however, things work differently over there. They continuously and brutally beat the guilty until they give the stolen money back, and they kept telling me that was what was happening and for me to be patient. I couldn't handle hearing that, and I was having my life threatened for dishonoring the ones who mugged me. I was asked to withdraw the report and I was not allowed to leave the Plan Pakistan Office for my safety. We had two guards with large guns, but they were sleeping half the time. I was worried. So I withdrew the report and then later learned that they were never beaten, and that the police simply made a deal with the ones who mugged me and took half. I scheduled an emergency flight out of the country the following day."

"However, the hardest part was leaving", Hassan says. "not because of the what happened, but because I was leaving the refugees behind".

In order to fill the void Hassan left behind, he has now opened a sector of work within his non-profit, Invitation Relief, specifically for Afghanistan. In addition, he has sponsored a child in through Plan Pakistan who he writes to and sends money to periodically. "I'm building a partnership with Plan International to finish my work there." Hassan, staring downward added, "the refugees said to me before I left- 'just tell someone about what's happening here, and that will be enough for us'.

Newspapers have described him as "Pakistan's Prince of Tennis", "The Prize of Pakistan", and "A Model of Determination". It's a tremendous and admirable effort for this young American who lost his father at a very young age to cope and continue to strive the way this deep young man does. Remarkable is an understatement.

“I will do my part in this life, this is my promise to myself”, Hassan uttered. “I hope to die pleasing my Lord, and I pray that my best day be my last day - the Day of Judgement. Ameen.”

For more information or to donate to help Hassan Akmal's pro tennis fund, visit: http://www.hassanakmal.com and/or e-mail him at hassan.akmal@gmail.com

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