Refugee to role model: Ramla Ali is fighting to make an impact -- and make history

Born in Somalia but brought to England as a baby, Ramla Ali has represented her native country in the Olympics but still has yet to make it back there. Shayan Asgharnia for ESPN

RAMLA ALI'S FISTS were up as she stared at the sparring dummy in front of her. Next to her was a small girl with long brown hair in a brown sweatshirt with "LOVE" printed across the front. Ali was teaching Shaah how to throw a punch -- a right hand to the face.

When Ali first walked into the Makani center inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2019, just miles from the country's border with Syria, she found herself drawn to the girl with the infectious personality. She would show Shaah a move. Shaah would mimic it.

Ali bonded with the 12-year-old she couldn't completely communicate with -- one whom she probably would never interact with again. For days, Ali walked through the refugee camp hearing stories of separation and pain, of hope and resilience with the belief that one day, a new life would come.

Ali, a featherweight professional boxer, was there as an ambassador with UNICEF UK, her adopted country's subsidiary of the United Nations Children's Fund, to try to understand. She wanted to become a voice for refugees by amplifying their stories.

She spoke with a group of teenagers living in the camp who dreamt of being journalists, accountants and surgeons. She watched young children learn phonetics and kids train to play sports.

"All the young children that I met there were just so positive and so hopeful," Ali said. "And you just think to yourself, 'If I was in this position, would I be this positive and hopeful?'"

There are many celebrities who work with UNICEF, but few like Ali. Like the children she met, Ali is a refugee. Throughout her entire life, her parents have dropped hints about the country she desperately wants to one day see but has not returned to since the family left for England when she was a toddler.

Ali's life is like a jigsaw puzzle put together. From boxing to modeling, writing a book and being a humanitarian and a champion for women in London through the nonprofit she started, she has pushed past the limits of what may have seemed possible. On Saturday, when she and Crystal Garcia Nova become the first women to box professionally in Saudi Arabia on the card headlined by the Oleksandr Usyk-Anthony Joshua heavyweight title fight, Ali will once again exceed expectations. And everything Ali has done in her life traces back to the place she comes from, yet has no recollection of.


"You could just sense that Ramla's reflections and emotions were grounded in lived experience," said Pauline Llorca, the head of ambassador relations for UNICEF UK. "There's nothing replacing that in terms of where it is coming from, what it carries when she exchanges, and she talks about it."

Years after leaving Somalia, as Ali began her own life's journey, she was inspired by her parents. How they took a chance, having no idea how or if their decision to leave their home country would work. It's a story she hasn't always wanted to tell. But as she grew older, she began to see the value in it -- for her and for those who have had shared experiences.

"You've left everything you've known your entire life for something that you don't know on the chance that it could be good," Ali said. "I think there's a lot of bravery in that."

SITTING IN THE back seat of a four-door gray Honda Civic her husband, Richard Moore, was driving, Ali let out a loud, guttural laugh. Almost a cackle.

"I just tell everyone I'm 21 all the time," Ali said.

It's a way of using levity to get at her truth: Ali doesn't know how old she is. The day, the month, even the year -- her best guess is she was born in 1989, but it's unclear. The documents that had this information were lost as the family was fleeing Somalia. Now, Ali has had passports from three countries, all with different birth years on them. Family members have helped her piece together timelines, but nothing definitive.

Ali knows she was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the country was in the early stages of a brutal civil war that continues to this day. Her parents, whom she declines to name in order to protect their safety as they still travel back to Somalia occasionally, were merchants who owned a fabric store. Day-to-day life had normalcy even on the precipice of danger, even as the country changed from the tourist haven her parents remembered.

Ali's parents eventually had to close their shop. Her older siblings stopped going to school. Air strikes devastated their neighborhood and many of the businesses in it.

One day, Ali's brother, Abdulkadir, was playing outside when a grenade landed near him and exploded. Their dad and uncle found him barely conscious. They placed him in a wheelbarrow -- roads were too damaged for a car -- to transport him to the hospital, where Abdulkadir died.

Ali, a baby at the time, remembers none of this, but instead learned the story growing up as her parents tried to keep Abdulkadir's memory alive. Abdulkadir's death pushed Ali's parents to take the family and flee the country.

They traveled by van to the port city of Kismayo, with a plan to take a boat to Mombasa, Kenya, before flying to the United Kingdom.

What was supposed to be a few days in Kismayo turned into at least a month, with the Alis sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a storage facility. Eventually, they saved enough money -- her mother sold fabrics and father worked construction -- to take a small, overcrowded sailboat without an engine for a seven-day trip to Kenya. There was nothing to eat onboard and only dirty water to drink.

Once the Alis reached Mombasa, they stayed for about a year to save money for flights to London and fake Kenyan passports. They received rations from relief organizations but never spent time in a refugee camp.

Ali has no recollection of Kenya, only passed-down stories.

"My parents would give us information in dribs and drabs," said Ali's brother, Imran. "There's never been a full conversation about what that time was like for them in Somalia, what they had been through."

In November 1992, the Alis landed at Heathrow Airport, in colder temperatures than they ever had experienced, and applied for asylum.

IN ENGLAND, THE Alis were first taken to temporary housing in a basement flat in Paddington, London, while their application was processed. After six months, they moved into publicly owned housing in Manor Park in the Newham neighborhood of East London.

Ali's eldest sister, Faiza, added a couple of years to Ali's age so she could enroll in school and receive free meals. Ali did not yet speak English.

"When I first started school in the U.K., I remember a kid wanting to play with me," Ali said. "I was on the slide, the kid wanted to play with me, but I didn't know how to communicate. ... That was my first memory ever of anything."

After four years, the family moved to a second-floor flat in Ashington House in Whitechapel. The community was diverse but largely Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi. Ramla lied about her family history as refugees to fit in.

When Faiza got engaged, Ali saw herself in a video and decided she wanted to get in shape. She convinced her mom to let her join the East Ham Leisure Centre and eventually discovered they offered classes in boxing for exercise. Ali had watched a fight on television with one of her brothers, was mesmerized by the intensity of it, and decided to try.

THE FIRST TIME Ali went to the class, she didn't go in, worried she would embarrass herself. A week later, her childhood best friend joined her and they entered the class. Ali stayed in the back and started to get a feel for it.

Ali was not good at first, but she loved it. She enjoyed the camaraderie, the wrapping of the hands, the exercise and the pad work. She quietly signed up for more boxing classes at Trinity Centre, a community hall. She had found her passion.

Yet she couldn't share it with the people who mattered the most -- her family. Ali's parents, in their interpretation of their Muslim faith, viewed boxing as something women shouldn't participate in. That was the case even as Ali started taking fights and rose in the amateur ranks. She quit a job at a law firm and abandoned her initial career path of becoming an attorney, instead going into physiotherapy.

Her younger brother, Yahya, eventually found out about her boxing and helped Ali in her early amateur days. But another brother saw her fighting on television in 2014 and told her parents. Her mother insisted she quit. Years later, Ali wrote a book, "Not Without a Fight: Ten Steps to Becoming Your Own Champion," in which she recounted this incident and said she "lost the thing that made her happy." Ali didn't box for six months, writing at that time that she fell into depression.

In 2015, she returned to boxing -- this time in secret from her entire family. In April 2016, when Ali became the first Muslim woman to win an elite national championship in Great Britain, her family had no idea.

"She'd come home with bruises, black eyes, things like that after sparring sessions, coming back from bouts," Imran said. "So it became quite obvious, but she hid it from my parents."

This went on for years, even as Ali competed for the British national team in amateur competitions. When she joined Instagram, she blocked family members so they couldn't see her posts. Her siblings eventually found out a second time, and whenever boxing came up with her parents at home, it devolved into argument.

This could have gone on for the entirety of Ali's career, except she had a bigger goal. Ali wanted to go to the Olympics.

After it became clear Ali wasn't going to represent Great Britain -- she failed to make the national team -- she and Moore formed a different plan, suggested by a friend and fighter, Valerian Spicer. It was a plan that would tie together her past, something she had only heard stories about, and a present day in which she could break barriers and create hope for future generations. She would try to box for Somalia.

REPRESENTING SOMALIA WAS impossible at the time. No federation existed. Ali and her husband were attempting to create an organization and an Olympic path out of nothing.

There was some assistance from friends in other nations, but the process was hard for Ali and Moore, who had few connections and no experience. They had to do the work themselves, from getting meetings to finding help for their vision of a Somali Boxing Federation, which is what Ali needed in order to compete in the Olympics.

"There's probably a long list of things of what you could be that would make you not liked by [those in power], and she ticked all of those things," said Moore, who by this time was coaching Ali. "And we kind of just did everything our own way. We never really asked for permission."

They needed Somali passports, and Moore worked toward securing a license to be able to coach for Somalia. Ali and Moore, married since 2016, paid for nearly everything themselves. It was getting expensive, and they decided that for this to work, Ali had to go public. She had to tell her story -- her family's story -- even if it meant her family finding out she was boxing.

Ali sat down with Dalsoor, a Somali television station and YouTube channel, in January 2018. The decision changed her life in ways she had hoped ... and also in ways she couldn't have ever imagined.

One of the journalists told her and Moore to stop asking for permission to do anything. "Fake it 'til you make it" was what Ali said she took from the advice. They went to competitions in Germany and Denmark saying they were fighting for Somalia even though there was no federation officially supporting her. The competitions were small, so there was no fallout from their decision to "fake it" because it went largely unnoticed.

This eventually opened up conversations in Somalia and with AIBA, the international boxing federation.

The other thing that changed with Ali's appearance on Dalsoor: An uncle in Somalia saw the interview and convinced her parents to be OK with her decision to box. Ali's mom called her as she traveled to Denmark, told her she'd say a prayer for her protection and that she would win. For Ali, it was a show of acceptance.

She won the tournament, and afterwards, as Ali wrote in her book, her mom told her she was proud of her.

"It's not just something that she's doing, it's something that she's really good at," Imran said. "That way it becomes a little bit easier for my parents to digest, when she's winning big, big fights and people decide to make a fuss about her, the Olympics, things like that.

"It became massive, and there was no choice but for my parents to accept."

In everything she chooses to do, Ali says she hears her mom's voice -- from her selection of clothes to how she chooses to present herself to the world. Adding her mom's support accentuated her belief that fighting for her family's country gave her career "a greater purpose."

After getting the Somali Boxing Federation approved in 2018, Ali fought in the world championships in New Delhi, and she said busloads of Somalis traveled from all over India to cheer for her. Even though she lost her fight and was devastated, the entirety of the moment stuck with her.

Knowing she had support from her people -- seeing Somali flags in the stands and hearing cheers from the crowd -- made her emotional. Since the federation was created, men have begun traveling and fighting for Somalia.

"You're competing for a country you know nothing about, but the overwhelming support that you get -- people don't treat you as an outcast because you don't live there or you have no memory of it," Ali said. "They just see you as one of them, and that's an amazing feeling."

WHEN HER STORY became public, Ali saw another opportunity for change. She remembered her first days in boxing classes, feeling uncomfortable and questioning whether she belonged. She wanted to eliminate that feeling from as many women as possible, so she founded the Sisters Club, a free, weekly, women-only boxing class in London originally intended for Muslim women to train with or without their hijabs in a safe space.

"The only free time of the week I had for myself, I dedicated for this passion of mine," Ali said. "To help other women see their potential and to get into a sport who they wouldn't necessarily have access to."

The reaction to this venture surprised her. Ali received interest from women of all backgrounds, including survivors of domestic violence. One class of seven women turned into a full-blown organization.

Early on, Ali convinced her older sister, Luul, to come to class because Luul wanted to get back in shape following the birth of her third child. Luul went to a class, and it helped her understand Ali's world. Eventually, Luul became the organization's administrator. The Sisters Club soon grew to 20 people, expanding through word of mouth.

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, online classes helped spread the reach. With a sponsorship from Nike, the Sisters Club now holds classes in various locations throughout London. There's a website and social media presence, and over 300 women in multiple WhatsApp chats Luul runs to set up classes and other events.

"They feel safe because it's a sisterhood," said Jake Meskell, who runs social media and marketing for the Sisters Club. "Everyone's a friend. Everyone cares for each other. Everyone looks out for each other."

Even though Ali now lives in Los Angeles, training in boxing with Manny Robles, she remains involved with the Sisters Club, popping into the WhatsApp chat occasionally and sometimes teaching virtual classes. She hopes that what she created can expand to other cities in England, and eventually, internationally.

Ali thinks back now to her own beginnings with boxing training, when she was in a class with people who didn't look like her, didn't understand her. She would have benefited from what the Sisters Club now offers women.

"It would have been amazing," Ali said. "Because when I was that age is when I first started boxing, and I first started boxing because I was self-conscious of how I looked. But [it would have been great] to be in a space with a bunch of women who all had the same insecurities, similar insecurities to what I did."

THE ATTENTION ALSO brought a call from an unexpected source -- IMG Models scout Daniella Munoz reached out and inquired if she had interest in meeting with the firm. She did, and soon after, Ali met with Munoz and Christine Fortune, the head of the fashion company's talent department.

IMG loved Ali and the story of her journey. Ali felt immediately comfortable with Fortune, too, and IMG signed her in January 2019. The woman who started working out as a kid to get in shape was now going to become a model.

Ali's schedule intensified as she balanced boxing and modeling. Her first modeling work came with British fashion designer Amanda Wakeley. Then she competed for Somalia in the African Zone championships in Botswana, and when she won the featherweight tournament, she cried as she heard the national anthem of Somalia being played for the first time while she was officially representing the country in a competition. When she got to the hotel after the tournament, Ali called her mom to tell her.

British Vogue magazine reached out. A guest editor wanted to include her in the September 2019 "Forces of Change" issue alongside actor Jane Fonda, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, actor and activist Jameela Jamil and others. The editor? Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who called Ali herself. In the midst of training, Ali didn't pick up the phone the first time before later connecting.

The most surreal moment in a life full of them.

"To start your kind of career being highlighted as someone that is a game-changer is quite a major thing," Fortune said. "What we're really very good at is understanding that from that [starting] point, you can jump and jump really high."

Cartier and Dior hired Ali. What began as something to help get gear and clothes from Nike -- the company was one of her first sponsors -- turned into a full-blown second career, creating a tricky balance of modeling and boxing.

Ali's modeling contracts have helped fund her life and her boxing training -- although she has given up six-figure modeling jobs to instead spend the time training for fights. Fighting is her passion. Every brand Ali works with understands her schedule and priorities and that it's possible she might show up with a bruise or two after a fight.

Ali's appeal in the fashion world is about the entirety of her story, Fortune said. It's more than the looks. It's about who Ali is. For Ali, the modeling career gives her a chance to make a difference in a way she didn't feel she had growing up.

"It's very important. Representation is very important to me," Ali said. "I always say you can't be what you can't see. You need to be able to see it in order to believe it."

THE VISION THAT pushed Ali to tell her story came true last year. Ali qualified for the 2020 Olympics and marched in the opening ceremony in Tokyo as her country's flag bearer.

But the Olympics experience wouldn't be easy. Moore became sick with appendicitis soon after they arrived in Tokyo. He and Ali believed that if they left the village for medical care, COVID-19 regulations would disqualify her from returning. They didn't know for sure, because they didn't ask for an exemption. Ali was willing to leave the village, but Moore insisted they stay.

In the week leading up to the Olympics, Ali barely trained. She was distracted because of Moore's illness. Complicating matters was that he was her coach and trainer.

Ali made history by fighting in the Olympics. She lost a 5-0 decision to Romania's Maria Nechita without anyone knowing what was going on behind the scenes.

"I never mention the Olympics," Ali said. "I just don't feel like it was something that I did good at. It wasn't a true account of my abilities or how I am as a boxer. I thought I boxed terribly."

After the Olympics, she focused on her professional career, which includes another first this weekend. Ali and Garcia Nova will be the first women to fight professionally in Saudi Arabia, where women have long dealt with many restrictions under a religiously conservative government. Ali doesn't know what type of reaction she'll receive in Jeddah. On a personal level, Ali believes this will help show her mom that all along, boxing was the right thing for her. Fighting in Saudi Arabia, Ali hopes, will be another way for her to enact change and provide hope and inspiration where there once wasn't any.

"It provides hope to so many women, No. 1," Ali said. "It provides hope to loads of little girls looking up to us knowing that they could do, they can be and they can achieve anything that they want.

"So it's a fight that's just bigger than me and my opponent."

IT WAS A Sunday this past June in Los Angeles, an off day from training. Ali and Moore were headed to Aralda Vintage -- she'd been told there were a bunch of dresses there that she might like.

In a white T-shirt and cuffed-up jeans, Ali sorted through a row of floral patterned shirts and skirts and another of long black dresses. She smiled as she browsed and occasionally let out her infectious cackle. This was fun for her, even if she rarely gets to do her own shopping anymore. She has a stylist now. When she needs fancy clothes, brands send her things.

After vintage shopping -- she didn't buy anything -- Ali went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to take in an exhibit of famed fashion designer Alexander McQueen. She marveled at the collection, enamored with a peach-colored McQueen creation she would love to wear one day. It's not impossible that that would happen one day, another piece of a life she still marvels at.

Ali knows sharing her story gave her opportunities she never could have envisioned. It took her places she could have never imagined, such as the Met Gala, where earlier this year she met tennis star Venus Williams and told her how she and Venus' sister, Serena, inspired her to become an athlete.

Even now, though, Ali is uncomfortable sharing her story. She would have been fine without the attention, just fighting and trying to make a career of it on her own.

"It always felt really intrusive," Ali said. "I've only ever shared my story because there could be somebody out there who is in a similar situation to me who is afraid, and I had to be that brave person for that person.

"I had to be the brave one for that person to show them, 'Look, it is OK and you can come out of it on the other side.'"

Ali has created a fan base of people who have heard her story, including some in the Somali community who have been inspired by seeing one of their own succeed. Moore said U.S. representative Ilhan Omar, a congresswoman from Minnesota and a Somali refugee, traveled to Ali's July fight in London. It was the first time Ali has fought professionally in front of her family. The Sisters Club also showed up en masse.

DJ Fawzi, considered the first woman Somali DJ, name-checked Ali in her biggest hit, "Bati Gang." Fawzi wanted to highlight Somali women who were breaking barriers. Ali, who listens to the song in training, was a no-brainer to include.

"You're not supposed to play music. You're not supposed to be a politician. You can't be a boxer," Fawzi said. "We've been put in this little box, and my biggest inspiration came from that. 'Cause I wanted to share.

"I wanted to tell a story that Somali women are very powerful."

Ali wants to return to Somalia one day and connect with the place she holds close. There's hope it'll happen. Maybe, Ali hopes, it'll be soon.

In the community that raised her, Ali's impact is clear. At the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Barnet Grove in London, Ali's face is plastered on the side of a building. It is three stories tall and visible from a block away.

She sat virtually for the mural artist during the pandemic. The artist drew Ali over a yellow background and flanked by trees on either side, with the words "Choose Courage" written in script above her face.

It's a message she embodies -- one she saw in the refugee camp she visited in Jordan, in her family and friends and, perhaps most, in her parents.

"This refugee crisis that's happening all over the world, it shows us to be human beings more than anything, and I think a lot of people gravitate towards that," Ali said. "Sometimes you fear the unknown -- what do they want, oh my god. Then they realize that wow, they're just like everybody else. They just want safety and want to be [in] a place where they are happy. I think a lot of people gravitate towards that.

"I've had so many knockbacks in my life, so many setbacks, and I've chosen not to take it to heart and chosen never to let a 'no' stop me from doing something. A lot of people see the fighter in me in them as well."

Ali's hair in posed photographs is by Michael David Warren/The Wall Group, makeup by Nikki Deroest/The Wall Group.