Syrian athlete to carry Rio flame in Greek refugee camp


A Syrian swimmer and judoka who lost his lower leg in a bombing and who was granted asylum in Greece will carry the flame of the Rio Olympics through an Athens refugee camp later Tuesday, the UN refugee agency said.

Ibrahim al-Hussein, 27, will carry the torch through Eleonas camp, where some 1,600 asylum seekers are being given temporary shelter amid Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.

Hussein, who has been granted asylum by Greece, was nominated for the Olympic torch relay by the Greek Council for Refugees, the UN refugee agency’s local implementation partner, a UNHCR source told AFP.

“From the start the aim was to have a refugee who has secured asylum,” the UNHCR source said.

“We had asked if there is a refugee who is also a star athlete,” the source added.

Hussein, an electrician from Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on the Iraqi border, was an award-winning swimmer and judoka before war erupted.

The son of a swimming coach, Hussein and several of his 13 siblings swam competitively from the age of five, reaping medals in local and national competitions.

– Training in the Euphrates –

The family lived on the banks of the Euphrates River, and Hussein told UNHCR that the Deir Ezzor suspension bridge would often serve as his diving board.

“I used to climb to the top, dive into the water and swim in the river,” he told the UN refugee agency in an interview published on its website.

But in 2012, he lost half of his right leg in a bombing and fled for Turkey a year later. From there, he travelled to the Greek island of Samos in 2014 on an inflatable boat.

A million other migrants and refugees were to follow suit in 2015, risking their lives to flee war, poverty and persecution mainly for Greek and Italian shores.

With the gift of a prosthetic leg from a private doctor, Hussein now works in a cafe in Athens, lives in a rented apartment and continues to be a passionate sportsman.

He plays wheelchair basketball and swims 50 metres (yards) in 28 seconds — less than 3 seconds short of his personal best before the injury.

“It is an honour,” Hussein said of bearing the Olympic flame.

“Imagine achieving one of your biggest dreams. Imagine that your dream of more than 20 years is becoming a reality.

“I am carrying the flame for myself, but also for Syrians, for refugees everywhere, for Greece, for sports, for my swimming and basketball teams,” he said.

“My goal is to never give up. But to go on, to always go forward. And that I can achieve through sports.”

In late June, Hussein is to compete in the Greek disabled swimming championship.

In another gesture to the migration crisis, the International Olympic Committee has said a team of up to 10 refugees will take part at the Rio Olympics.

Some 40 athlete refugees have been identified by the IOC as possible contenders, with a selection to be made in June, the UNHCR source said.

The flame was kindled last week in the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera at Ancient Olympia.

On Wednesday, it will be handed over to Brazilian officials in a ceremony at the historic all-marble Olympic stadium in Athens, site of the first modern Games in 1896.

Some 12,000 torchbearers will then carry the flame through Brazil ahead of the opening of the summer games on August 5.

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