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Podcast / January 13 2022

A Syrian Paralympian who competes for all refugees

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Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up in Syria watching the Olympics on TV. He was a swimmer, and he dreamed of someday being one of the athletes up on the podium. But at age 22 — the age at which many swimmers are in their prime — he lost his leg in a bomb blast, and became one of the 5.6 million people who have fled Syria since the start of the civil war. Ibrahim still hasn’t been able to return to his home country, but in 2016, he became one of two Paralympians to compete in Rio as part of the Refugee Olympic team — a team formed by the International Olympic Committee in response to the number of stateless athletes looking for avenues to compete at the Olympics.

Full Transcript

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Qualifying for the 2016 US Olympic team was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It seemed so impossible for so long that I always felt like if I even spoke the word “Olympics,” that it would disappear. That’s how fragile this dream felt. But for an athlete who is displaced, the Olympic dream can seem even further out of reach. 





When I came to Greece from Turkey by the sea, I wasn’t afraid at all. Why wasn’t I afraid? Because I didn’t have anything to lose. I didn’t have a life. I was a disabled man in a wheelchair. I couldn’t walk. All of my dreams were shattered, and all the doors were closed. So I wasn’t afraid, not even of dying at the sea. It was normal for me. I was already dead. But when I arrived to Greece and I was treated, I got back to my dreams and hopes. My life has changed. 


IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 


Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up watching the Olympics on TV. He was a swimmer, and he dreamed of someday being one of the athletes up on the podium. But by the time he was 22 years old, the age when many swimmers are in their prime, he was forced to flee his homeland as one of the 5.6 million people who have left Syria since the start of the civil war. Reporter David Enders has our story. 





Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up in eastern Syria in the province of Deir ez-Zor. The city is bisected by the Euphrates River as it flows toward Iraq, linking cities thousands of years old along its winding, reedy path through the desert. 





My father is a swimming coach, so I started my swimming career when I was five years old. I had a beautiful childhood, until the situation in Syria erupted. 





For the third week in a row, the Friday day of prayer in Syria saw new protests, violence, and killing. 



Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in Syria. [SOUND OF PROTESTER SHOUTING IN ARABIC] On the capital, protesters chanted against President Bashar Assad…





Syrian troops killed 20 people in a tank assault on the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. 


DAVID: Deir ez-Zor became a contested city, bisected now not just by the river, but by warring factions. In 2013, Ibrahim himself became one of the millions injured by the fighting. He had been hanging out with a friend at his house when disaster struck. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: My friend was going back to his house, and he was injured by shelling. He started screaming, “Help me, help Ibrahim!” So I went rushing to help my friend. I didn’t even hesitate for one minute, even though I thought that I would die next to my friend. I was carrying him, and seconds later, another shell came and hit us. My right leg was amputated, and my left leg was injured. 


DAVID: The war meant that treatment for Ibrahim’s injuries was limited, and options for physical therapy and rehabilitation even more so. Seeking better care meant joining the flood of refugees moving overland out of Syria toward Europe, a journey perilous and daunting, even for those in perfect health. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: My first destination was Turkey. I stayed there for a year and two months for treatment. I got treated, of course, but it was not good treatment, so I had no choice other than going to Europe. I thought about the possibility of returning to sports with Paralympians from another country. So first, I went to Greece. And, of course, I didn’t have money, but someone helped me and paid for the smuggler — the human smuggler, as they say. I arrived to Greece on February 27, 2014. I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t walk. I crossed the sea, and it was the group I was with that helped me. I didn’t know any of them. They were from Syria, Iraq, Palestine. We all speak the same language. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: When I came to Greece from Turkey by the sea, I wasn’t afraid at all. Why wasn’t I afraid? Because I didn’t have anything to lose. I didn’t have a life. I was a disabled man in a wheelchair. I couldn’t walk. All of my dreams were shattered, and all the doors were closed. So I wasn’t afraid, not even of dying at sea. It was normal for me. I was already dead. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: When I arrived, I stayed in the camp on Samos island for 16 days. And they gave us guards to get out of the camp, and these guards allowed us to stay in Greece for six months only. After that, the only solution was to apply for asylum or leave the country. There is no other choice.


DAVID: To apply for asylum, Ibrahim needed money to get to Athens, but he didn’t have money for the boat. Other refugees in the camp collected money for his ticket. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: So I arrived to Athens without knowing anything about it. I only knew it from the Olympic and Paralympic Games on TV in 2004, and I wished I had been there at that time. It was my dream to be in the Olympics and the main goal. So I arrived in 2014, and I stayed for 16 days on the streets without a home. There were no refugee camps by that time in Athens. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: By coincidence, I met a Syrian guy, and he asked me where I was from. And when I told him my story, he told me that he had a Greek friend that had the same medical condition I do. He called his friend who contacted a doctor to see what he can help us with. The next morning, we went to the medical center. The man responsible for that center was named Angelos Chronopoulos. And when he knew my story, he offered me a free artificial leg. He stopped his work in order to finish it for me, and in one week it was done. And I wore it immediately. So my first step after that was looking for a job. And I found one in a bus stop. And since my English wasn’t good and I didn’t speak Greek, my job was cleaning the toilets. So I cleaned the toilets, and I applied for asylum. Then I started searching for sports clubs, but all of them rejected me. The first one to accept me wasn’t a swimming club, but a basketball club. And in that time I wasn’t a basketball player. But because of the passion I had for sports, I joined the basketball club. And after that, I loved sports even more, and I wanted to continue, and I was still searching for a swimming club. I was looking for a swimming club from March 2014 until October 2015, when one of the swimming clubs accepted me. I was very happy, because it was the club where the Olympics took place, and it was where I dreamt to be in 2004. So that gave me huge motivation. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: Of course, it wasn’t easy to learn Greek. But my determination and my love of the country and the people, and Greek friends in sports and at my job, made me learn the language. I didn’t go to school. I learned the language from my friends. I always had a copybook and a pen, and any word I don’t understand, I wrote it down and a friend explained to me what it meant. I never went to school to learn Greek. I didn’t have time. I had sports and a job, so I didn’t have time to go to school and learn. So my love for the country and the people motivated me to learn this language. And the Greek language is considered one of the hardest languages in the world. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: I started training, and after four or five months, there was the Athens swimming championship for people with special needs. So I participated in it, and I won first place. After one month, I participated in the two competitions of the Greek championship. I competed and won first place in one and second place in the other. 


My situation was very difficult between swimming, basketball, and working 12 hours on the night shift in the bus stop. I used to cry, because I would be exhausted. But I had a dream and I had a goal to reach, whatever the cost was. So in April 2016, UNHCR and the Greek Athletic Federation contacted me to inform me that I have been chosen to be in the Olympics campaign. So I was shocked. I didn’t believe it’s finally happening. So I said to the press that, “Unfortunately, I cannot participate in the international competitions since I’m a refugee.” After that, the International Paralympic Committee heard my message and they called me. They told me that they formed the Paralympic Refugee Team, and you will be the first player in that team. I didn’t believe the news. The first competition for refugees is going to be in Rio. I was very happy. I couldn’t believe it’s actually happening. For me, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. 


DAVID: It got even better. Ibrahim was one of two Paralympians to compete in Rio and was invited to carry the torch as part of the relay team. The team was formed by the IOC in response to the number of stateless athletes looking for avenues to compete at the Olympics, a number that continues to grow. 



The Parade of Nations begins with Syrian-born leg-amputee swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein as the flag bearer for the Independent Paralympic Athletes refugee nation, if you will. [SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING] And given a rousing welcome to enter the stadium first. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: It’s any athlete’s dream to be in the Olympics or the Paralympic Games, especially if he is on the refugee team. The refugee team is different, because of the immigration crisis, and everyone knows about this crisis. Each and every one of the refugees misses their mother country. 


DAVID: Ibrahim also qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and was training rigorously when I spoke to him in July. But he was also looking beyond the games. 




MALE TRANSLATOR: I will do everything I can to launch a refugee basketball team, that has many nationalities, to be in the World Championships and Paralympic Championships, and to let all the press and all the people to know that this is the refugee team. And despite their tragedies and their disabilities, they formed a team and they are competing. After I come back from Tokyo, I will concentrate on that officially. The dream is to go to Paris Olympics in 2024. 


DAVID: Like millions of Syrians in exile, Ibrahim longs for a home to which he cannot return. 






MALE TRANSLATOR: Now, my family is no longer in Deir ez-Zor. But I try not to look back, because I just want to look forward. But of course, I miss it there and I miss my country, even if it is destroyed. I try my best to avoid watching the videos and the pictures of what’s happening there, in order not to increase the pain inside me. I have a road in front of me, and I cannot change anything. What was destroyed is destroyed. I consider Greece as my second home country. It’s the country that kept me and provided me with everything I needed in the most difficult times of my life. The thing I want to tell people, of course, about the refugees: Refugees have strength and determination in all fields, and I’m not just talking about Syrians, I’m talking about all refugees. They have the power, and they have the determination towards success, not only in sports, but in all other fields — in education, medicine, engineering, IT — they have the strength, but all they need is the opportunity. So I hope from all the countries to open and give them the opportunity, and I’m sure they will prove themselves in any field. And that’s my message to the world. 


IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 




IBTIHAJ: I’m joined by reporter David Enders. David, you were planning to interview Ibrahim again after the Tokyo Olympics. What happened? 


DAVID: Well, unfortunately, Ibrahim’s not been feeling well. And that was actually the case before he went to Tokyo. He has a lung injury, and he said that, actually, while he was competing in Tokyo, he was basically doing so with one functional lung, which is kind of incredible to think about. Just another added challenge for him as he seeks to compete at this level. It did seem like he was feeling a little bit down. And when you talk to people who work with refugees regularly, they’ll tell you that mental health is a serious and often unaddressed issue. You’re dealing with people who have experienced, generally, multiple traumas, often having to flee violence and leave their homes, and then make often very perilous and dangerous journeys, like Ibrahim. And so, yeah, I did get the sense that Ibrahim was maybe struggling a bit with depression, and certainly also, he’s dealing with what might be a career-threatening injury, and he just wasn’t up to talking again after he got back to Greece. 


IBTIHAJ: And what’s Ibrahim doing now?


DAVID: So, at the moment, Ibrahim is undergoing treatment for his injury, and he’s also continuing to coach a refugee Paralympic basketball team that he started. He’s hoping they’ll be able to compete in the 2024 Olympics. 


IBTIHAJ: So crossing the Syrian border out to Turkey is not an easy proposition, and it’s really incredible how Ibrahim has managed as an amputee. Talk about the physical difficulties of leaving Syria during this time. 


DAVID: Just the actual act of fleeing into a country without permission — illegally, maybe; however you want to phrase it — can be an extremely dangerous thing. I mean, we see on the US border people being turned back violently recently. In the case of the Turkish border, that is in many places a heavily militarized border and requires crossing, in some cases, minefields. And I’ve done it in the company of refugees on a number of occasions. And as a physically fit person, it’s extremely dangerous and difficult. And the idea of having to do it without being able to walk well, or at all, is just kind of incredible. And then to get oneself from Turkey to Greece by boat, as Ibrahim did — we see on a regular basis migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, because they’re on boats that are not designed for the number of people they’re holding. They’re, you know, sent off with faulty motors by people smugglers, I have to say, I’ve found to be less than honest. 


IBTIHAJ: David, can you talk a little bit about the Refugee Olympic Team, and who are the other athletes that are members of this team? 


DAVID: So the Refugee Olympic Team started in 2016 and was created by the IOC as a response to the crisis we’ve been talking about. Refugee numbers have spiked in the last decade. And the initial team in 2016 — my understanding is it was kind of built around a number of — about a half-dozen runners from South Sudan who were living as refugees in Kenya. And then at the same time, there were other athletes, including Ibrahim, who were petitioning for an avenue to compete at this level, even though they could not represent the countries where they come from. One of the most recognizable is Yusra Mardini, who is also a swimmer from Syria, and famously helped rescue a number of people on one of those boats crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. And she and her sister, who were both swimmers, were able to actually tow, effectively, the boat a number of miles to Greece when the motor failed. 


IBTIHAJ: Yeah, I remember Yusra’s story. We were both visa athletes at the 2016 Games, and what I remember about her story is just being in this, you know, seemingly impossible position with her family and other people trying to cross, you know, the Mediterranean, and her leaving the life raft that she was in to swim her family and everyone else on the raft to safety. So there’s a lot of trauma that exists amongst these athletes, but … . The Syrian refugee crisis was dominating news headlines a few years ago, but has received less attention recently. But that doesn’t mean the crisis has ended, right? 


DAVID: Right. The Syrian refugee crisis is, is very much continuing, as are other refugee crises: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan. I live in Lebanon, and there are a million Syrian refugees here, in a country with a population of about six million. You know, for the last 10 years, on a regular basis, I visit Syrian refugee camps, some that are, you know, within a couple miles of the Syrian — you can see Syria quite well from where these people are still living in tents after a decade. And right now, winter has begun. The fields are flooding and muddy, and these people literally rent space, you know, in potato fields. And the fact that they still don’t feel safe going back, and are living in those kinds of conditions, just tells you how serious a problem this is. 


IBTIHAJ: In his story, Ibrahim mentioned meeting other refugees from Syria, Iraq. When we look around the world at displaced people more generally, how big is this crisis? 


DAVID: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number of refugees worldwide at 82.4 million, and that number has risen substantially. It’s more than doubled in 10 years and is continuing to rise. 


IBTIHAJ: And why is Ibrahim’s story so important? 


DAVID: Well, it might sound trite, in a way, to say it, but Ibrahim’s story is important because — it’s important for a number of reasons. Just as a simple story of what people can overcome and achieve in the face of, of massive adversity, it’s a very inspiring story. But it’s also important, as Ibrahim himself has pointed out, because he’s not unique, unfortunately. So many millions of people are displaced around the world and have had similar experiences to Ibrahim’s. And so really, it’s important, I think — you know, as someone who covers the refugee crisis here in Lebanon, the Syrian refugee crisis, it’s really important for these people to be humanized, because often they live in conditions that are dehumanizing, or they are struggling with host populations who are not necessarily happy to have so many refugees in their country. So, so really, I think part of addressing the issue is helping people see that Ibrahim and other refugees are people just like all of us, and have goals and aspirations that are the same as many of us might have. And so I think it’s really important for that. 


IBTIHAJ: Well, thank you for the work that you’re doing, helping all of us understand that there are actual lives behind that very, very, you know, large number — 80 million displaced people around the globe. I think hearing a story like Ibrahim’s is really helpful. 


DAVID: What you really understand is that this is something that is done in extreme desperation: to cross a border and risk being shot or stepping on a landmine, or being arrested and being sent back. It speaks to why people have to leave. Talking to people like Ibrahim drives home our shared humanity and the necessity to to treat people — who are fleeing for various reasons — as the people they are, so that they can get the aid they need rather than being rejected and put back into danger. 


IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by David Enders and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. 


Next week on the podcast: As the US and the Netherlands faced off in the 2019 Women’s World Cup final in France, a chant erupted in the stands that had nothing to do with what was happening on the field. 



Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay!…



IBTIHAJ: But in some countries, the fight for equal pay has really just begun. That’s next time, on The Long Game.