Boxing Champion Ramla Ali Is Fighting for Refugees

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Going into a Feb. 4 junior featherweight bout in New York City, Ramla Ali, the professional boxer, fashion model, and philanthropist who represented Somalia at the Tokyo Olympics, felt less than her best. She had been coughing all week. Her warm-up left her fatigued. After Round 2, she returned to her corner—and felt pain in her chest. She tried to stay positive. “But inside,” Ali says, “I was dying.”

Ali, 33, won the 10-round battle against Australia’s Avril Mathie in a unanimous decision that kept her undefeated as a pro. After the fight, she was diagnosed with a viral respiratory infection and a partially collapsed lung caused by pneumonia. Such a performance in the face of adversity bodes well for her chances to ascend the fight ranks. “My next aim is to become a world champion,” says Ali. “And I’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.”

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A title would help raise Ali’s profile, and call more attention to her work outside the ring. In 2018, she started Sisters Club, a nonprofit that offers boxing lessons to women who don’t usually enjoy access to the sport: those from ethnic or religious minority backgrounds, as well as survivors of domestic abuse. Sisters Club has expanded to four locations in London, opened a branch in Los Angeles, and will soon add another one in Fort Worth.

Ali is also a UNICEF U.K. ambassador. When she was a toddler, her family fled Somalia and was granted asylum in Britain. Before the pandemic, she visited the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, and she plans to make similar trips this year, hoping to destigmatize what it means to be a refugee. “Just the other day I saw somebody put on their Insta­gram, ‘I’ve been eating like a war refugee all weekend,’” Ali says. “It’s quite offensive. It’s important for me to show that refugees are human beings as well.”

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