Ibrahim al-Hussein began swimming competitively as a boy with several of his 13 siblings under their father, a swim coach in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. The city’s famed suspension bridge became young al-Hussein’s starting block and diving board into the Euphrates River. He won contests at the local and national levels.
But after the Syrian civil war broke out, he lost a leg in a violent blast and was eventually forced from his home. He didn’t swim for five years.
This week, however, al-Hussein makes up half of a two-member Independent Paralympic Athletes Team competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro from September 7-18. Discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour, an Iranian asylee in the United States, is the sole other athlete on this first-time “Refugee Paralympic Team.”
In a period of increased population migration, the two will raise awareness of the over 65 million displaced people in the world and represent refugees with impairments. At the Games’ opening ceremonies, al-Hussein and Nasajpour will march first into the Maracana Stadium in Rio in the parade of nations.
Starting this week, the pair will compete under the Paralympic flag and its symbol, the Agitos. Al-Hussein will swim the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle in the S10 Paralympic category, while Nasajpour will throw the discus in the F37 category.
“When I found out I would be competing in the Games, I was so happy I couldn’t sit still,” al-Hussein recently told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. “I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. It was such a wonderful feeling.”
An impossible Olympic-sized dream
For al-Hussein and Nasajpour (due to the sensitivity of his situation, the discus thrower declined to divulge personal details), the road to Rio was long and fraught with danger.
In 2013, al-Hussein was injured during a roadside bombing after intense fighting came to his area. One of al-Hussein’s friends was hit by a bomb. Al-Hussein and three of his friends rushed to help, but a rocket struck the nearby area, according to the UNHCR.
Al-Hussein’s leg was blown off and the rest of the group also faced injuries. He crawled away from the scene and was rescued by some other friends, who took him to a basic medical clinic where his leg was operated on. He went home the same day.
Al-Hussein later told the Paralympic committee that during surgery, he woke up twice and “saw everything.” At home over the next few months, al-Hussein “lived with excruciating pain and little to no medication,” the Paralympics reported.
Seeing that medical aid was unlikely to reach Syria, he escaped to Turkey, where he spent much of the next year recuperating and “teaching himself to walk again,” the UNHCR office reported. However, dissatisfied with his medical care in Turkey, he left for Greece — in a wheelchair and crutches — on an inflatable boat.
Al-Hussein arrived in Greece in 2014, where he resides today. He received a prosthetic leg for free from a Greek doctor, but was unsure if he would ever swim again.
Last October, however, al-Hussein reentered the pool, swimming through a Greek sports league for athletes with disabilities. Today, his times are just several seconds off his personal bests before his injury.
Sports to transcend politics — and disability
Tony Sainsbury of the United Kingdom, the team’s chef de mission, is one who deeply appreciates the arduous journey al-Hussein and Nasajpour have undertaken leading up to the 2016 Paralympics.
Al-Hussein “feels himself very lucky, and that it was unexpected to come to Rio,” Sainsbury said. “I think he has already moved on [from his injury]. He’s already established with a place in Athens.”
Sainsbury said that there are “absolutely” other refugees with impairments in the world, but as to how many there are, “we don’t know, to be quite honest,” he said.
Sainsbury said that efforts to create a refugee Paralympic team at Rio have been ongoing since January.
“This could not be a PR exercise, but the beginning of a journey,” he said.
And the journey won’t end when the Paralympics are over.
“We will continue as long as there’s a need,” Sainsbury said. “The International Paralympic Committee is committed not only to these athletes, but to other athletes sitting out there, refugees with impairments. We will make a real effort after Rio.”
Sainsbury encouraged people with impairments living in refugee camps not to give up on their dream of participation in sports, regardless of the scale.
“For the kids and adults situated in [refugee] camps, who say, ‘this is not for me’ — yes, it is,” he said. “Whether you’re playing footie [soccer] in a refugee camp, right through the Paralympics.”
In recognition of the global refugee crisis, al-Hussein carried the Olympic torch at a refugee camp in Athens during the torch relay in April.
“I have one wish — gold!” al-Hussein said in the Paralympic release on August 26. “I want to send a message to all those who have been injured, that you can still reach your dreams.”
The formation of the first-ever Refugee Paralympic Team
Sainsbury said that people would have to be “living in a cave, particularly in Europe, not to understand the massive importance of the war in Syria, or the conflicts in other parts of the globe, in Africa, North Africa, Central Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the consequences this has meant on people who felt so unsafe, taking massive risks, to leave and travel thousands of kilometers by sea. There are a lot in Europe who have taken all sorts of chances that you and I can’t even begin to understand.”
Both team members needed to have official refugee status verified by the United Nations, as well as the required travel documentation. They had to be confirmed in all criteria by August 15. Al-Hussein is a refugee, and Nasajpour is an asylee.
“Para athletes have competed as independents at the Paralympic Games before, but this is the first time those with refugee and asylee status have been given special attention,” the Paralympics reported in a release.
“[We] were originally approached by National Paralympic Committees who knew of athletes they thought could compete at the Paralympics,” IPC spokeswoman Lucy Dominy said. “We then initiated a wider process to identify others and had five potential athletes for the team to begin with. After their documentation, sport performances [and so forth] were carefully reviewed, we finished with the two we now have going to Rio 2016.”
The International Paralympic Committee is funding the team, which is also supported by partners such as Visa, Allianz, Ottobock and Panasonic, and by Adidas and Speedo through the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry.
“These partners are providing various forms of support, financial as well as goods and equipment,” Dominy said.
“Those athletes who will not travel to Rio are still under our wing, and we will be supporting them into the future via our development arm, the Agitos Foundation. There may also be other athletes who can be added,” she said.
In addition to the two current athletes and their chef de mission, the team includes coaches and support staff.
Emotional support from the support staff
Sainsbury described his role as both an administrator and father-confessor.
“If they’re worried externally, I’ll try and see if I can help some of their concerns,” he said of this latter role. “It’s part of the motivation of the athletes to do their best, not just for themselves, but the country they represent. Actually, they represent refugees, refugees with impairments, to demonstrate that nothing is impossible, that life can get back to normal. You’ve just got to believe and hope.”
‘We have a volunteer job for you. We think it’s important’
Sainsbury’s experience with disability sports goes back 40 years, when he began coaching wheelchair basketball in the 1970s. He is a five-time chef de mission for the British Paralympic Team and a founding member of the British Paralympic Committee. He has worked as a consultant to different Olympic bids, including the Tokyo Summer Games of 2020.
“Being involved 40 years, I’ve been [familiar with] many wars throughout the world, particularly the Middle East,” Sainsbury said. “It was quite noticeable, the times we competed against, as the British team, lots of former soldiers and civilians from conflicts.”
Sainsbury said he was approached by IPC chairman Sir Philip Craven and CEO Xavier Gonzalez about becoming chef de mission for the refugee team.
“They said, ‘Look, Tony, we know you like coming to the Games,’” Sainsbury recalled. “’We have a volunteer job for you. We think it’s important.’”
The Refugee Team’s debut at the August Rio Olympic Games
The August 26 announcement of the Refugee Paralympic Team came after the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team competed at the Rio Summer Olympic Games earlier that month. Both teams come amid greater attention, and a worsening situation, regarding the global refugee crisis.
Already in August at Rio, the Refugee Olympic Team, comprised of 10 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, recorded several historic achievements, even if the team did not win any medals.
Al-Hussein’s fellow Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini, won her heat in the 100-meter butterfly, although she did not advance. Mardini’s dramatic escape from Syria was widely reported in the media, as she and her sister Sarah devoted three hours in the waters of the Mediterranean pushing a dinghy overcrowded with refugees to safety. Mardini also competed in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing second to last.
Congolese judoka Popole Misenga became the first team member to advance to the next round, defeating Avtar Singh of India to reach the Round of 16. He lost in that round to former world champion Gwak Dong-han of South Korea, who eventually won bronze.
Misenga’s fellow Congolese judoka, Yolande Bukasa Mabika, did not advance, losing her first-round match to Linda Bolder of Israel.
Rami Anis, also a swimmer from Syria, finished sixth in a field of eight in the 100-meter freestyle, which did not qualify him to advance. He also swam the 100-meter butterfly.
“Representing the refugee team is an honor to me,” Anis said. “I am proud to be representing refugees and all those oppressed. I take great pride in that.”
Five distance runners from South Sudan competed: Yiech Pur Biel, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen (who carried the Olympic flag for the team as it marched as the second to last entry into the Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremonies), Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek.
Nora Sturm, of the UNHCR press office in Geneva, said that all of the South Sudanese runners completed their events, “and were warmly applauded by the appreciative crowd.”
On the final day of the Rio Olympics, Ethiopian refugee Yonas Kinde competed in the men’s marathon, finishing 90th with a time of 2:24.
Qualifiers when you have no country to represent
The US Olympic Committee helped Iranian discus thrower Nasajpour to qualify for the Paralympics, allowing him to participate in the national trials with the US team, “simply to record a distance in the discus,” Sainsbury said.
“One criteria was that [refugee and asylee team members] needed to be able to stand beside their peers and hold their heads high, not be a token,” Sainsbury said.
Al-Hussein met his qualifying times at the Greek national championships.
‘I thought my dream had gone when I lost my leg but now it is back for real’
“I have been dreaming of this [competing at the Games] for 22 years,” he told the Paralympics. “I thought my dream had gone when I lost my leg but now it is back for real. I can’t believe I am going to Rio.”
It was just a few months ago when al-Hussein carried the Olympic torch through a refugee camp in Athens. Now in September, he and Nasajpour will themselves get a chance to compete — and represent refugees with impairments — on the world stage.
“As the world’s number one sporting event for driving social inclusion, the Paralympic Games have long been an important symbol for the promotion of human rights,” IPC chairman Craven said in a release.
“Through their performances those competing in the IPA Team will stand for courage, determination, inspiration and equality on a global stage,” said Craven.