» From Syria to Rio – One refugee’s journey to Paralympic glory
07.09.2016 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

From Syria to Rio – One refugee’s journey to Paralympic glory

© UNHCR / Achilleas Zavallis

“I was aware of the Paralympics when I was in Syria but I knew that if I were to stand a chance of competing at such a high level, I would need to first find a prosthesis,” said Ibrahim Al-Hussein, a 27 year old Syrian swimmer, and #YouthOfUNESCO protagonist, due to take part in the 2016 Paralympic Games that kick-off today in Rio.

Ibrahim’s story began in Deir es-Zor, Syria, where he lived and worked as an electrician. “I spent all of my spare time training in swimming and judo and hoped to one day make it to the Olympics.”

But these hopes were dashed in 2012 when Ibrahim’s friend was injured in a bombing just outside his home. Ibrahim rushed out to help and was caught by a rocket, seriously damaging the lower part of his leg. “By this time, there was no hospital services because of a shortage of medical personnel and resources so I was taken to a first aid station where I awoke to find that half of my leg had been amputated.

After three months recovering at a friend’s house, I decided to make my way to Turkey for medical treatment but they were so overwhelmed with amputees, they could not fit me with a prosthesis so I was stuck in a wheelchair. I decided that my only hope of returning to sport would be to get to Europe so I took the boat to Greece and eventually made it to Athens.”

Ibrahim arrived in Athens in 2014, found work in a local cafe and was finally fitted with a prosthetic leg. He also began swimming again with an organization for athletes with disabilities.

“Once I had escaped the war and been fitted with a prosthesis, I could finally start thinking about what might be possible as far as swimming is concerned. And when the International Paralympic Committee planning group began to communicate with Greece, the impossible started to become a reality.

The day I heard I had been selected for the Independent Paralympic team for refugees, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even sit still. Being able to immerse myself in sport again is an opportunity for me to return to the person I once was. I have so much ambition for Rio 2016 and feel alive in every sense of the word.”

UNESCO’s work aims to ensure that every child, no matter their background, gender or disability status, can access sport. Together with the International Paralympic Committee, and other partners, UNESCO actively promotes sport values including fairness, inclusion and perseverance, so aptly demonstrated by Ibrahim and the other athletes taking part in Rio.

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