Grace under pressure From refugee camp to the ring, nothing can keep local boxer down
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/07/2022 (251 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Grace Fahnbulleh has been knocked around by life — far more than anyone should have to endure — yet she continued to get off the mat and carry on.
It seems only fitting the Winnipeg resident turned to boxing as an outlet and has set a remarkable example for her family and community.
She was born in West Africa in Liberia but grew up in a refugee camp in Nigeria. Her mother Gowah raised Fahnbulleh and her four sisters and three brothers all on her own.
“I just remember playing a lot and trying to go to school but getting kicked out of school as our mom didn’t have enough funds to pay for our school fees,” Fahnbulleh told the Free Press on Wednesday.
“But you know, we were such a great community. Of course, things (weren’t great) there, like the water, the food, but we managed to pick each other up and get by each day.”
No matter how limited their resources were, Gowah taught Fahnbulleh and her siblings how to treat others.
“She was super nice to people. Super nice to strangers. I remember one time at the refugee camp where we didn’t have anything to eat, and the little amount of food she could find, she gave it to someone else that was super hungry. That’s how nice my mom was,” Fahnbulleh said.
Gowah, however, wanted more for her kids, so on Nov. 8, 2006, the family immigrated to Winnipeg. Fahnbulleh, now 27, was 12 at the time. Gowah went to Robertson College, earned her certification to become a health-care aide, and worked hard in order to purchase the family a home on Inkster Boulevard a few years later.
“My mom gave up so much to make sure we had a better life,” said Fahnbulleh.
“My mom could’ve done so many things in the refugee camp. My mom had her hair salon and could’ve ran so many businesses, but she wanted us to go to school and become good people. My mom just sacrificed so much for us to be here.”
As Fahnbulleh adjusted to life on the prairies, and the winter, she fell in love with basketball. She started playing in Grade 7 at Hugh John Macdonald School. Her skills on the court and strong grades earned her a scholarship to the University of Winnipeg Collegiate for high school. From there, she played two seasons for the U of W’s college team in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference. But Fahnbulleh ended up throwing in the towel on basketball as she wanted to pursue combat sports. She started out doing MMA before transitioning into boxing at United Boxing Club. It was around that time when her mom was diagnosed with cancer.
“During that time, I didn’t think about it. It just felt good to not always be at home seeing my mom sad and knowing that I couldn’t do anything and also be in my feelings. When I’d go to the boxing gym, I was a different person,” Fahnbulleh said.
“I was happier, I was joyful. I wanted to be there more often to let go of so much pain and feelings. Now that I’m older and think about it, boxing did save me.”
Gowah died on March 29, 2016. Without her mom, their home went into foreclosure.
“Honestly, it was really hard. There were moments where I would get mad that my mom was gone and that I was in this situation. But I had to dig deep down. I had to fight hard because I didn’t want to waste my mom’s sacrifices for bringing me here,” Fahnbulleh said.
“I didn’t want to be strong, but I had to be strong. I didn’t want to grow up fast, but I had to grow up fast. But you know, my family, we’re very God-loving. I thank God, even though I blamed him sometimes, but I also thanked him for taking us through deep waters but also bringing us back up. We’re all doing great. We’re all doing so well and my mom would be so proud.”
Fahnbulleh’s experiences outside of the ring have helped her step through the ropes and become the boxer she is today. She’s been fighting competitively since 2018 and has become one of the top prospects in the province. Fahnbulleh, who fights in the 54 kilogram class, fought at the 2019 Canadian Olympic boxing trials.
“Some of the hardships and hard times we’ve gone through have prepared me to be a fighter mentally. Physically, I’m always good, but mentally, that’s the big thing,” Fahnbulleh said.
Fahnbulleh is one of 10 Manitobans competing this weekend at an Olympic-style boxing tournament in Brampton, Ont., called the Brampton Cup. The tournament is the largest in Canadian boxing history as it features 600 fighters of all different ages, weight classes, and skill levels. Fahnbulleh squares off against Scarlett Delgado, a member of the Canadian national team, on Friday. The winner will fight in the division final on Sunday.
Fahnbulleh hopes this week can help lead her to her ultimate goal in the sport — representing Liberia at the Olympics.
Coach Kent Brown strongly believes his fighter has what it takes to make that happen.
“She’s going to be a world champion one day and you’ll see it. Not only because of her resilience, but because of her determination and how great of a talent she is. And she eats it up. I’ve seen thousands of talented boxers and there’s only a very few that put it to use and she’s one of them,” said Brown.
2022 Brampton Cup
Venue: Save Max Sports Centre in Brampton, Ont.
Sanctioned by Boxing Ontario, the Brampton Cup is one of Canada’s largest and longest-running Olympic-style boxing tournaments. The last two were cancelled because of the pandemic, but they’re back this week with over 600 competitors, the most they’ve ever had in the event’s 39-year history. The tournament is comprised of boxers of all ages and skill levels from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Africa.
“She picks things up very quickly. She applies it and she sticks with it. She’s just a dream athlete.”
Fahnbulleh is driven by things more important than medals and titles. She wants to make a difference in the sport and get more immigrant women involved. Fahnbulleh, who currently works at New Directions as a resource worker, also aspires to become a police officer in hopes of improving the relationships between the police force and people who are new to Canada. She wants kids to have a role model who knows what it’s like to be in their shoes.
“It’s so different for us because growing up as an African woman, you’re being told to have kids at 15, you’re being told to not have muscles or do this and that, but boxing can save lives. Boxing is so good for our mental health knowing that we’ve been through so much trauma from back home,” she said.
“That’s my goal and if that doesn’t happen in Canada, I’d love to go back home and help the youth, especially women, and give back through boxing and teach them a lot of self-defence because the rape in Liberia is super high and women aren’t safe there.”
No matter where boxing or life takes Fahnbulleh, she’ll always have her mom with her. Gowah’s middle name was Georgia, so before every fight, Fahnbulleh puts in her headphones and listens to Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles.
“It brings me closer to her. It makes me feel her and know that she’s with me inside the ring and outside the ring.”
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Updated on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 9:16 PM CDT: corrects date