Man's dogged pursuit of Paralympic dream

An amateur marathon runner is trying to scale the last hurdle to his volunteer participation at the Paralympic Games: a British visit visa.

Mr Sulaiman, who has run several marathons in the Emirates, regularly organises sports events for Eta's labourers.
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DUBAI // A British visit visa is the last hurdle blocking Ahamed Sulaiman's dream to be a volunteer helper at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Inspired in part by his autistic brother, the 36-year-old Dubai office worker wants to travel to London so he can be a "games maker", or specialist volunteer, at the Paralympics, which begin on August 29.

And while his first three visa requests have failed, he is hoping his latest will be accepted, thanks to help from his employer.

In early March, Mr Sulaiman was sent an invitation to help at the Games, after three rounds of telephone interviews over three years with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Before he can travel to London, though, he must convince British immigration officials that he should be allowed entry. His application has been rejected three times by the British Embassy in Dubai. He said his application was rejected because he has a low salary, does not have sufficient funds in his bank account and could not show proof that he will return to Dubai after the Games.

The British Embassy would not say why Mr Sulaiman was rejected.

"The Abu Dhabi Visa Section does not disclose specific information about our customers to third parties," a British Embassy spokeswoman said. "This is because we have a legal obligation to protect information about applications under the UK Data Protection Act."

However, she said, "we assess each application, including those of Olympic volunteers, against the immigration rules in order to establish if these are met, and so our advice to all applicants is to provide sufficient evidence with their application to demonstrate this".

Mr Sulaiman's employers at Eta Ascon Group, a Dubai-based construction company, might now have provided a route out of the visa impasse: they are sponsoring his trip. "We are really proud that Ahamed has been chosen as a games maker and that was why we wanted to support him," said Akbar Khan, executive director of Eta's human resources department. "He's already a marathon runner and when he told us about the Paralympics, we were thrilled."

Mr Sulaiman, who has run several marathons in the Emirates, regularly organises sports events for Eta's labourers.

"I am interested in sports and have always wanted to be a part of it," said the Indian national, whose title at Eta is senior assistant administrator.

Eta has budgeted Dh75,000 for his trip and has already transferred Dh20,000 to Mr Sulaiman's bank account to facilitate his visa processing. Additionally, the company has furnished a sponsorship letter.

Mr Sulaiman submitted another application on Thursday, anxiously hoping he will make it to London in time to attend at least three training sessions to prepare for the Games.

At the Games, tens of thousands of British and international volunteers will take on a variety of roles that include welcoming visitors, transporting athletes and helping out behind the scenes with the technology team to ensure results are displayed quickly and accurately.

Being a volunteer was not Mr Sulaiman's first dream. "After I completed the Dubai marathon in 2007, I wanted to compete in the Olympics. But it needs full-time dedication, international training facilities and a very good level of fitness."

He said that financial constraints and his low salary (under Dh5,000 a month) meant that he could not take much time off from work to train. And back then, he could not find a sponsor who was willing to fund his training.

He did not give up.

"After watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I wanted to be part of the Games," he said. "Three months after the event, I sent an email asking to work as a volunteer [at the London Olympics].

"I believe athletes are not the only Olympians. Volunteers and coordinators are also Olympians because they help the Games happen smoothly. I was keen to be a part of the Olympics arena."

His sources of inspiration include his younger brother, Abu Backer, age 30, who is in India and has autism. "We have to take care of most of his needs," he said. "My parents are very happy I am taking part in this. As a games maker, I'll have to provide full support to the athletes. They will need assistance in handling their personal stuff and I am really looking forward to helping them."