The Syrian swimmer who won a gold medal at the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016 has returned to his native country, where he is now competing for the first time since his arrival.
The paralympics 2021 is the upcoming Paralympic games that will be held in Tokyo, Japan. Swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein’s remarkable journey from war-torn Syria to the Olympics is a story of hope and redemption.
Al Hussein came in Athens with little money and was sleeping on the streets.
As Ibrahim Al Hussein awoke, it was dark. He couldn’t move, and heavy dust blanketed the area, obliterating everything except a few tiny fires flickering nearby. It was difficult to take a breath.
Another person softly screaming out nearby interrupted the loud high-pitched ringing he could hear. Then there was the matter of his leg. He couldn’t feel his foot since something wasn’t right.
“I didn’t know whether I was dead or alive at the time,” Al Hussein recalls today.
He had dived to the ground seconds before to defend a buddy who had been shot by a sniper from a neighboring rooftop. The Syrian conflict had erupted the previous year, and it was 2012.
His family had already left their house on the Euphrates River near Deir al-Zor, but Al Hussein felt obliged to remain. When he was 23, he worried that if he was caught, he would be forced into the army, and refusing would have meant certain death.
Every day was a nightmare. Much of what he loved had been damaged by bombing, while water and power had been shut off, and no food supplies could reach the city.
The survivors established a brotherhood. They felt “locked in tombs” on certain days, yet they managed to keep a community together. They would die for one another if they didn’t have to, but they prayed they wouldn’t have to.
“I could just barely make out individuals coming towards me as the smoke cleared,” Al Hussein remembers. “They took me away to safety after hearing the tank shell explode.”
Metal shrapnel was lodged in Al Hussein’s nose, face, and arm, and his lower right leg had been blasted apart. The explosion had fallen only a few feet from where he had dove to save his buddy, who had escaped injury.
With all government services halted, a dentist set up a makeshift medical clinic in a tent to treat wounds and provide pain medication.
However, there was no time to relax and no way to recover here. Al Hussein was well aware that the life-saving medical care he required for his leg was not accessible in Syria.
He and a few pals devised a plan to flee. They would attempt to cross the river into Turkey, which is to the north.
He says, “We had to go at night because we knew the Syrian army would be patrolling and the Turks would have armed troops as well.” “We were hoping for the tiny boat to go undetected.”
Al Hussein traveled between three towns in southern Turkey with the aid of other travelers in a frantic quest for assistance.
Most people were able to put new bandages to the wound, but antibiotics were scarce, especially because he couldn’t afford them.
“The treatment in Turkey was appalling,” Al Hussein claims.
“I was given a prosthetic limb by one hospital, but I had to carry tools with me since the screws would fall out every 100 meters.”
“It also ached when I wore it, as the metal components tore through the skin and came into contact with the bone, causing infection.”
He chose to go across the nation in the hopes of finding better opportunities in Istanbul, but he was disappointed and grew more desperate.
He adds, “I felt that Europe was now my only choice.” “People urged me to return to Izmir, which is south of the city, where I might be picked up by smugglers.
“It was terrifying walking from square to square looking for smugglers and then negotiating with them.”
Inside Al Hussein’s Athens house, there are medals and trophies on the wall.
On February 27, 2014, Al Hussein boarded a tiny dinghy with the hopes of crossing the short but hazardous trip to Greece’s Samos Island.
Every year, more than 8,000 refugees come in the United States. Many more try but fail to complete the trip, something Al Hussein was well aware of.
“I could sense the other passengers’ dread, but I’d been around death since being wounded in 2012, and I viewed sinking in the middle of the sea as a quicker way to die,” he adds.
“Yes, it was terrifying, but I was in’self-preservation mode.’ I was battling for therapy and a better life at the same time. I knew that if I made it, everything would be better the next day.”
Al Hussein and his companions arrived at Samos, where they were quickly apprehended by authorities and detained in a refugee camp. He calls it “the greatest day” of his life, and he says it with a grin.
He was granted permission to remain in Greece for six months, with Athens as his primary destination.
“I didn’t have the money,” Al Hussein explains, “but people noticed that I was partly in a wheelchair and half using a walking stick.” “They were understanding and purchased a boat ticket for me.”
After landing in Athens, the traveling group ran out of money and could no longer assist Al Hussein. He remained with them while they made their way to Northern Europe.
“Those were difficult days,” he remembers. “I didn’t have any money, couldn’t communicate in the language, and had to live and sleep on the streets where the cops couldn’t kick us about.”
“I’d be hungry some nights and had to hunt for fruit in trees or eat grass from the park.”
In one of the city parks, he met a fellow expat by accident. The guy, who had fled Syria 20 years before, gave Al Hussein a place to stay for the night and set up a meeting with Angelos Chronopoulos, a doctor who specialized in treating individuals who had limbs removed.
“When the doctor realized I was in a wheelchair, he stated it was not a scenario he could tolerate,” says Al Hussein.
“He paid for a wooden prosthesis, physiotherapy to help me learn to walk without a crutch, and antibiotics to cure the infection out of his own money, totaling more than 12,000 euros. Everything was given to me by the doctor. I was overjoyed.”
Al Hussein couldn’t communicate in Greek, so he accepted the only job he could find: cleaning the toilets at a small café. He was pleased to be able to support himself by working every day of the week with no breaks throughout lengthy hours.
“I was earning money, which allowed me to purchase food, rent a place to stay, and decorate my house,” he explains.
“But there was something lacking – sport.”
Al Hussein’s father encouraged him to swim, but he first refused.
Al Hussein learned to swim from his father, who was a two-time Asian champion. Although Al Hussein initially rejected his “strict” regime, preferring judo, his father trained him as a youngster.
When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, all sports facilities were forced to shut, but now that he was established and secure in Athens, he was eager to get back into shape.
“I spent all of my mornings looking for sporting groups that would accept me,” Al Hussein explains. “I’d tell them I used to be an athlete, but most people would reject me as an immigrant with an injury.”
He discovered a wheelchair basketball squad that would let him play in May 2014, and his “prayers were fulfilled” a year later.
“I was granted permission to train at a swimming club. “When I looked at the location, I realized it was the Athens Aquatics Centre,” recalls Al Hussein, who watched the 2004 Olympics on a tiny TV in his “idyllic” house when he was 16 “Syria is my home.
“Watching those Olympics inspired me to participate in sports, and although it was a flashback to the past, it was also a glimpse into the future since I’d finally made it to the pool I’d always wanted to swim in.”
He spent most of 2015 swimming in the mornings, playing wheelchair basketball in the afternoons, and working at the café until late at night. In the same year, he received refugee status and was permitted to remain in Greece.
It was a demanding regimen, but it paid off when he won two gold in the Greek Para Swimming National Championships in early 2016. People started to notice.
“Local media started writing about how this Syrian refugee had come to Athens and trained here,” Al Hussein explains.
“I wanted to express how significant the sport had been in assisting me in assimilating into Greek culture as well as psychologically coping with what I’d gone through.”
A month later, the United Nations and the Greek Paralympic Committee invited Al Hussein to walk with the Olympic torch as it began its trip from Athens to Rio, the 2016 host city, in order to raise awareness to the country’s refugee crisis.
He gladly accepted and later told reporters that, “despite the impossibility,” he would “love” to compete in the Paralympics and “show what refugees can accomplish.”
Inspired by Al Hussein’s remarkable journey, the International Paralympic Committee gave him a spot on the first ‘Independent Paralympic Team’ – he would compete in Rio.
At Rio 2016, Al Hussein bears the flag of the first ‘Independent Paralympic Team.’
Everything was black on September 7, 2016, just as it had been four years before.
Al Hussein’s chest felt constricted, and his breath was shallow. There were muffled noises that he couldn’t make out once again. He rose up now, aware that he was still alive.
Al Hussein took a deep breath, grasped the pole he was carrying, and took his first steps inside Brazil’s famous Maracana Stadium as the curtain was pulled back.
As 60,000 people applauded the Paralympic opening ceremony flag bearer, he was assaulted by a “wall of noise.” He thought to himself, “This must be a dream,” since he had traveled so far.
After losing a limb in the battle, paying off smugglers, battling a life-threatening illness, living on the streets, and eating grass to keep alive, the world’s gaze was suddenly on him.
Al Hussein, who had just returned to the sport a year before, was unable to compete for a medal at Rio 2016. However, he returned home with the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which is awarded to an athlete who “best embodies the spirit of the Games and inspires and thrills the globe.”
He’s worked hard in the years afterwards, but the coronavirus epidemic has hampered his Tokyo preparations.
“I couldn’t get to the pool during lockdown, and it was a tremendous hardship for disabled sportsmen,” he recalls.
“Financially, it was tough since I had no assistance, no contests, and my place of employment was closed. But, as always, I found a way through.”
He’ll be part of another first in Tokyo, the six-strong Paralympic Refugee Team, and he’s excited to perform and share the narrative he started telling five years ago.
“Tokyo is a crucial time for togetherness and optimism,” Al Hussein adds, “but my message to migrants across the globe is to never give up.” Al Hussein will participate in the 100m breaststroke heat on Thursday.
“I went through a lot of pain on my trip, but I hope that others who see or read about me realize that life goes on regardless whether you’re a refugee or handicapped.”
“Regardless of your life’s challenges, there is still so much good you can do and so much you can accomplish.”
- paralympic games