Paralympic Syrian swimmer hopes to put spotlight on plight of refugees

A swimmer in Syria before the war, coached by his father, Ibrahim Al Hussein fled first to Turkey and then onto Europe after losing one of his legs in 2013.

Syrian paralympian Ibrahim Al Hussein, who is competing for the refugee team, receiving an initial consultation with prosthetist Julian Napp with the assistance of translatior Raghda Elessawy at the Ottobock Techincal Repair Service Center in the Paralympic Village on September 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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RIO DE JANEIRO // After losing his leg in Syria’s civil war and escaping his native land, Ibrahim Al Hussein never imagined he would be competing with the world’s top disabled athletes in Brazil as one of two members of the first refugee team in the Paralympics.

A swimmer in Syria before the war, coached by his father, he fled first to Turkey and then onto Europe after losing one of his legs in 2013.

“My friends helped me across the border. I used sticks to walk,” Al Hussein said ahead of the opening of the 2016 Paralympic Games yesterday.

“Now I dream of being the first paralympic refugee to win a gold medal,” said the 27-year-old who will compete in the 50 metre and 100 metre free-style swimming races.

Al Hussein and Iranian athlete Shahrad Nasajpour, a refugee who lives in the United States, are the two refugee athletes in the Paralympics. Nasajpour, who has cerebral palsy, will compete in the discus event.

More than 4,300 athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities from more than 160 countries will be in Rio to compete in 22 sports, including swimming, power lifting, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.

Al Hussein, who was active in sport from a young age, saw his life change when he was at home in 2013 and heard a friend calling for help and went to his aid, according to the Rio2016 website.

A rocket struck the road near where he and three of his friends went to assist and his leg was blown off.

A promising competitor before the war, Al Hussein was given a wheelchair in Turkey, but could not get the medicine he needed for his recovery and training.

Again with the help of friends, he wheeled himself to the Turkish border and boarded a crowded boat for Greece.

There he was discovered by Greek sporting officials who gave him a chance to train and eventually compete as a disabled athlete.

Al Hussein considers himself lucky – many other Syrian refugee athletes have not had the same opportunities to compete.

“There are many athletes from Syria spread across Europe and other countries - boxers, swimmers, and weight lifters,” he said. “If they were given support, many could become Olympians.”

Al Hussein is one of more than 65 million people who have been forced to flee their homes as part of the world’s largest wave of refugees since the United Nations began keeping records after the Second World War.

As a result of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, 24 people were forced to flee their homes every minute through 2015, the UN High Commission on Refugees reported in June.

Olympic and Paralympics organisers decided to create teams of refugees competing under the Olympic flag in order to draw attention to the problem and the obstacles faced by disabled refugees. A team of 10 refugees competed in the 2016 Rio Games.

“Given the current crisis in which millions of people around the world have been displaced and affected by war and conflict, this is the moment to shine a light on the people with impairments affected, as well as highlight the broader situation,” Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said.

Around 15 per cent of the world’s population has a disability, according to the World Health Organisation, and people fleeing conflict are disproportionately affected.

When it comes to the politics of Syria’s grinding civil war where regional powers are backing rebel factions or the government, Al Hussein says he just wants the violence to stop.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and forced more than 11 million from a population of about 23 million from their homes.

“Regardless of who was responsible for the war, I just want it to end,” he said. “We want to go back to our country.”

* Thomson Reuters Foundation