On his cell phone, Abdallah shows me a video of Ghada Shouaa, a retired Syrian heptathlete who won her country’s first and, so far, only Olympic gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The 37-year-old Abdallah has not set his eye on a medal, but he’s still hoping for a good run on the day of the 2016 Athens Authentic Marathon. On Sunday, he will take part in the 5-kilometer road race along with 14-year-old Ali, 22-year-old Samier and the other Syrian members of the “Solidarity Now Refugee Team.” Their two coaches will be watching.
“Every Monday and Wednesday we train at the park in Nea Smyrni. The rest of the week we play basketball or football to stay fit,” says Eleni Kokkinou, a physical education teacher who works for the nongovernment organization.
Kathimerini met with the refugee team during a soccer friendly with a school team from Nikaia. Abdallah was in goal, but it was clearly not his forte.
“When I lived in Syria I used to design carpets. I have been in Greece for about eight months, and I do not know where I will go from here. I am staying at the same hotel as the rest of the team, and we got to know each other over training,” he says in broken English.
“I am amazed by the fact that they have so much joie de vivre after everything they’ve been through,” says the team’s second coach, Apostolis Katzogias.
He says that sporting activities are beneficial to refugees’ psychology and help them to make friends. It also offers a form of escape while the authorities are busy with their paperwork.
“It’s the best way of venting their energy. We will resume training after the Sunday race. We are looking for sponsors for our shoes and indoor training facilities for the winter,” he says.
“I like sports, I like being with other people and I know how important the Athens Marathon is to Greece and in history in general,” he says.
He began his long journey from Syria and made the Aegean Sea crossing to the Greek island of Lesvos from Turkey. From Lesvos he traveled to Idomeni on the northern Greek border with the hope of continuing north to Germany, where his brother lives. “I joined the team so I could run and forget about the past. Life feels a bit more normal that way,” he says.
The game comes to a close amid the sound of happy laughter. They vow to meet again on the pitch. This is not very likely, as most of them will be relocated to other countries. They came together for the marathon and they will run as a team until the finish line.
They formed a circle and cheered the Arab word for “victory” with their hands stacked. Life felt a bit more normal, if for a moment.