Syrian, Iranian shine spotlight on refugees

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.

Yet he is 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 to Europe after losing one of his legs in 2013.

"My friends helped me across the border. I used sticks to walk," Al Hussein said yesterday.

"Now I dream of being the first Paralympic refugee to win a gold medal," added the 27-year-old, who will compete in the 50m and 100m freestyle S10 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 men's discus F37 event.

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.

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

"There are many athletes from Syria spread across Europe and other countries - boxers, swimmers, and weightlifters," he said.

"If they were given support, many could become Olympians."

He 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 World War II.

Olympic and Paralympic 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 Olympics.

"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 in a statement.

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," Al Hussein said.

"We want to go back to our country."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian, Iranian shine spotlight on refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe