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Damascus to Tokyo 2020: Syrian refugees’ remarkable journeys to the Olympic Games

Mahmoud left Syria to pursue his dream of competing in badminton on the largest stage in the world — a dream that’s set to come true in Tokyo this summer season.

The 23-year-old left Damascus searching for new alternatives, and with it, he left all the pieces behind.

“Leaving… my family, my friends, my homeland. This was the most difficult thing,” stated Mahmoud.

“I decided to leave Syria because I wanted to search for the better future for me as a person and also to feel safe, to live a normal life.

“The second motive was to have extra possibilities to proceed my badminton profession.”

The Syrian civil war began in March, 2011. There are now 6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide, of whom 5.6 million are hosted in countries near Syria, according to the UN Refugee Agency. In Syria, 13.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Ahmad Badreddin Wais  competing in the 52.5km time-trial race from Rattenberg to Innsbruck  at the 91st UCI Road World Championships in September 2018.

Climbing the mountain

Like Mahmoud, Ahmad Badreddin Wais journeyed from war-torn Syria to Europe to pursue a safer existence.

Traveling by a combination of taxi, boat and plane, Wais has settled in Switzerland as he trains to compete in the cycling time trial in Tokyo.

“In the starting, the plan was probably not to come to Switzerland. The plan was to be far-off from this warfare,” said Wais.

“I needed to be in the middle of Europe and to proceed to Belgium, as a result of Belgium was for me the residence of biking.

“But the way there, the travel was very long and I was very tired and I stopped in Switzerland and I think I fell in love with the mountain and all these lakes.”

Unlike Mahmoud, Wais says he stayed in Syria for an extra yr after his household had already made the choice to flee.

He stayed behind so as to compete for Syria in biking however determined to depart in 2014.

“It was hard for me because they say I must do training every day, but in my head it was very difficult to see what happened around and we lose a lot of people, a lot of friends and family. And finally, with the sport, I say, ‘No, I cannot continue.'”

Despite discovering a brand new residence, Wais says the journey took a lot out of him that he was not in a position to compete once more for over two years till 2017 when he set his sights on the Olympic Games.

After receiving a scholarship from the International Olympic Committee in 2019 as part of its refugee athlete program, the 30-year-old Wais is now centered on performing properly at the video games and exhibiting the world what refugee athletes can do.

“I hope to be in the top 20 in the time trial for sure; this is my goal or to be the best rider from Asia.

“It means, for me, loads. It means quite a lot of work, what I do earlier than [the Games] to be part of this crew and to current this crew in the greatest picture in the world.

“And for sure, I will give all my best to be with this team and to be a very good picture for all these people who have left something behind.”

Years after making the difficult choice to leave his home, Aram Mahmoud is now one of 29 refugee athletes that will compete at the 2020 Olympic Games under the Olympic flag.

‘Keep combating for my dream’

Although centered on competing in Tokyo, Mahmoud’s principal aim is to be reunited along with his household.

He describes an upbringing the place his household was usually collectively — even in sport. Mahmoud’s father coached him and his siblings, whereas he additionally educated along with his sister.

“When they heard I got a scholarship from the Olympic Solidarity Project, they were very happy because I have, like finally got my chance to prove something, to continue what I wanted actually from when I was young.

“So for them, it was essential that I preserve combating truly for my dream and now to be part of the crew and to have the option to take part in the Olympics.”

Since leaving Syria, Mahmoud traveled and settled in the Netherlands before ending up in Denmark in January 2021 to pursue his training at the Badminton Centre of Excellence.

Like Wais, Mahmoud says that representing the refugee team in Tokyo will mean everything.

“It means loads for me, as a result of now we will show to the world truly that we’re in a position to do one thing and we have now a aim.

“We are fighting for our goals, to reach our goals and to let the world see that we can do a lot.”

The refugee Olympic crew was first shaped for the Rio 2016 Games and is as a chance to present the world that refugees are extra than simply their migrant standing.

Compatriot and fellow refugee, Yusra Mardini, was certainly one of the 10 athletes chosen to characterize the inaugural Olympic refugee crew in Rio.

Mardini and her sister had been inspired to swim from a younger age and set their sights on the Olympics after watching Michael Phelps compete on tv.

After fleeing Syria, the sisters discovered a brand new residence in Germany the place Mardini continued to swim and observe her goals. However, when she walked out with the Refugee crew in 2016, she felt diminished by her newfound standing: “reduced to a single word.”

Now, as an envoy to the UNHCR and returning to the 2020 Games below the Olympic flag, she says she needs to encourage and educate individuals round the world about refugees.”Last Olympics, I represented more than Syria,” Mardini advised CNN Sport.

“I represented millions around the world. And I really love this idea. If I’m going to compete under the German flag, or the Syrian flag or the Olympic Flag, I’ll be representing all of them.

“Sport truly gave me this actually sturdy voice. I’m utilizing it to assist refugees to get them to higher locations, to get them shelter and to simply let the individuals perceive that they need to open borders for them.”

Ahmad Badreddin Wais competing at the 92nd UCI Road World Championships in 2019.

The power of sport

While their journeys to the Olympics have been different, both Wais and Mahmoud share one striking experience.

They have managed to find new homes and connect with their communities through their sports.

“Cycling, to illustrate sport, helped me loads, too, to neglect what’s occurred earlier than [the war] and to be remedy for me.

“It was the best option to meet new people, to have contact, to get to know this culture in Switzerland and in Europe, and it was very helpful for me,” defined Wais.

Mahmoud had an identical expertise by badminton when he arrived in Europe.

“It was difficult when I move from Syria to a different country, a different culture; everything is different there.

“The badminton helped me truly to change into a part of the group there; as a result of I performed properly, I instantly I made some associates.

“That was the most beautiful thing to have. As a sport or as something else to be able to integrate and learn some more.

“You know extra about their tradition throughout the sparring and through the coaching.”

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