As a swimming-mad teenager in Syria, Ibrahim Al-Hussein was glued to his TV set for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Twelve years later in Athens, and now a war refugee who is disabled but still loves swimming, Al-Hussein will represent the tens of thousands of displaced people in Greece in the Rio de Janeiro torch relay’s Greek leg.
“I have been an athlete for 22 years, and tomorrow I feel I will have made it, reaching the actual Olympic Flame,” Al-Hussein told The Associated Press on Monday after a training session in an Athens pool where some of the 2004 events were held.
“It’s a great honor and pride for me to carry the Olympic Torch … and the pride is not only for me but for all Syrian migrants who came (to Europe),” he said. “But I’m not just a refugee, I’m an athlete too.”
The 27-year-old freestyle swimmer, basketball player and former judo wrestler will receive the flame from the head of Greece’s Olympic Committee, Spyros Capralos, on Tuesday, at the Elaionas camp in Athens that is home to about 1,500 refugees and other migrants.
The International Olympic Committee says it’s a symbolic gesture of support to victims of the global refugee crisis, and is planning to let a group of 5-10 refugees compete at Rio, marching behind the Olympic flag.
The Rio flame was lit in Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Games in southern Greece, on April 21. It will be handed over to Brazilian officials on Wednesday after covering 1,400 miles in Greece, with stops including Marathon, the Acropolis and the rebuilt ancient stadium of Athens where the first modern games were held in 1896.
The flame arrives in Brazil on May 3, and will be relayed across the vast country by about 12,000 torchbearers before the August 5 opening ceremony in Rio’s Maracana Stadium.
“I want to go to Rio, but I can’t,” Al-Hussein said.
Growing up in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the River Euphrates, Al-Hussein was taught to swim at age 5 by his father, a swimming coach who will be watching his stint in the relay on TV, and three of his 13 siblings are also competitive swimmers.
“The river was 10 minutes on foot from my home,” Al-Hussein said, adding that he would swim there for 5 or 10 km, and then dive with his friends into the Euphrates from the city’s great suspension bridge.
Al-Hussein lost part of his right leg to a bomb in 2012, during Syria’s civil war that destroyed his city. He fled to Turkey, and crossed from its coast to the eastern Greek island of Samos in early 2014 in a rubber dinghy that carried 16 people. Unlike most other migrants, he chose to stay in financially struggling Greece, seeking and receiving asylum there.
Al-Hussein has since found a home, a job and training facilities – he swims three times a week and plays basketball in a wheelchair five times a week with an Athens club – and has learned to speak and read Greek. At 5 o’clock every afternoon, he starts work at a cafeteria where his shift can stretch for more than 10 hours.
He is unwilling to discuss his injury, saying that none of his neighbors or colleagues at work knows about it.
“I don’t think (about) or consider my disability, I treat myself as a healthy person,” he said. “I am like any normal healthy person … I can’t train enough. I want to be the best in Greece, not second or third.”
Al-Hussein says he has no plans to return to Syria, even if the war ends.
“I want to stay here, I have no wish to travel further,” he said. “I like Greece, the people and the place. And I don’t want to sit around at home, I like being an athlete and working.”