Tokyo Paralympics: Swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein's remarkable journey from war-torn Syria

Al Hussein arrived at Athens with no money, and was living in squalor.
As Ibrahim Al Hussein arrived, it was dark. He was unable to move, and the dust clogged up the air, blocking any light that might be visible. It was difficult to breathe.

He could hear a faint, high-pitched ringing sound. It was caused by another person who was nearby and whispering. Then he felt his leg. He could not feel his foot and knew something was wrong.

Al Hussein now says, "In that moment I didn't realize if I was alive or dead."

He had just seconds earlier dived to his death to save his friend who was being shot from a nearby rooftop by a sniper. It was 2012, and the Syrian civil war had just ended.

Al Hussein felt obliged to stay even though his family had fled Deir al-Zor, on the Euphrates River. He was 23 years old and feared that he would be forced to join the army if he was captured. Refusing would have led to certain death.

Everyday life was difficult. Bombing had decimated much of his life, and water and electricity were cut. No food or water supplies could be accessed in the city.

Those who remained were part of a brotherhood. They felt "trapped in their graves" at times, but they kept their community together. They would all die for each other, but they hoped that they wouldn't have to.

Al Hussein recalls, "As the smoke cleared, I could just about see people coming towards me," "They heard the tank shell explode and took me to safety.

Al Hussein had his lower right leg blown off and metal shrapnel embedded in his nose and cheek. He had only a few feet to go before the blast landed at the spot where he had tried to save his friend.

A dentist set up a temporary medical facility in a tent to treat wounds and provide pain relief after all the public services had been discontinued.

There was no way to recuperate and there was no time for rest. Al Hussein was aware that the life-saving treatment he required for his leg in Syria was not possible.

A group of friends and he devised a plan to escape. They planned to cross the river to neighboring Turkey to the north.

He recalls, "We had no choice but to travel at night as the Syrian army was patrolling the area and the Turks would also be there." "We hoped that the small boat would be overlooked."

Al Hussein was able to travel between three cities in south Turkey with the assistance of other travellers as he searched desperately for the help that he needed.

Many were able to put new dressings on the wounds, but antibiotics were scarce, especially when he didn't have enough money.

Al Hussein states that the treatment in Turkey was not good.

"One hospital gave me a prosthetic leg. But I had to have tools because the screws would come out onto the street every 100 meters.

"It hurt when I wore it, and it caused more infection because the metal parts tore through my skin and touched the bone."

He crossed the country hoping to find better in Istanbul but was disappointed and became more desperate.

He says, "I knew Europe was my only option." "People suggested I return to Izmir south of the city where smugglers could transport me.

"It was frightening going from one square to another trying to find and then negotiate with smugglers."

Al Hussein's Athens home wall features medals and awards

Al Hussein boarded the small dinghy on 27 February 2014 in order to make the treacherous crossing to Samos Island, Greece.

Each year, there are more than 8,000 refugees. Al Hussein knew that many more people attempt to make the journey, but they don't succeed.

He says, "I could see fear in the faces the other travelers, but I had been around the death scene since 2012 and if we sink in the middle the sea I saw that as a quicker way to die."

It was frightening, but it was my only option. I was trying to find treatment and fighting for a better future. It was clear to me that I would make it if I could. Tomorrow would be better.

Al Hussein, along with his companions, made it to Samos. They were quickly captured by police and taken to a refugee camp. He smiled and described it as the "best day" in his life.

He was granted permission to stay for six months in Greece, and Athens was his goal.

Al Hussein adds, "I didn’t have the money but people saw that my wheelchair was half and I was using a walking stick half." "They were kind and bought me a ferry ticket.

After arriving in the Greek capital, Al Hussein was left behind by his travelling companions who were short of funds. He stayed as they moved on to northern Europe.

He recalls that those were difficult times. "I didn't have any money and couldn't speak the language so I had to live on the streets and sleep in places where the police wouldn't let me go.

"Some nights, I wouldn't have food. I would have to search for fruit in trees or get grass from the park."

He met another expat in one these city parks by chance. Al Hussein was offered shelter by the man who had fled Syria 20 years ago. He also arranged for a meeting with Angelos Chronopoulos a doctor who specializes in amputated limbs.

Al Hussein recalls, "When the doctor saw that I was in a chair, he said it wasn't something he could accept."

He spent more than 12,000 euros to get a wooden prosthetic for me. This was for the physiotherapy that taught me how to walk without a stick, and the medication to treat the infection. Everything was provided by the doctor. "I was so happy."

Al Hussein couldn't speak Greek so he took the job of cleaning the cafe's toilets. He was proud of his work and worked all week without breaks.

He says, "I was making money which allowed me to buy food, rent somewhere to live, and decorate my home."

"But, I was missing something – sport."

Al Hussein was introduced to swimming by his father, but he initially resisted.

Al Hussein was introduced to swimming by his father, who is a two-time Asian champion. Although his father was a two-time Asian champion, Al Hussein initially resisted the strict training regime and preferred judo.

All sports facilities were closed in Syria during the 2011 war. But he wanted to get back to exercise after settling in Athens.

Al Hussein says, "I spent all of my mornings trying find sports clubs that would accept me." "I would tell them that I was a former sportsman but that I am a refugee from an injury and they rejected me."

He found a team of wheelchair basketball players in May 2014, and his "prayers" were answered 12 months later.

"A swimming club granted me permission to train at their facility. Al Hussein, a 16-year-old Syrian who had seen the 2004 Olympics on small TVs in his home in Syria, realised that the address was the Athens Aquatics Centre.

"Seeing the Olympics gave me the motivation to be a sport, and while it was a flashback at the past, it was also an eye to the future as I was able to swim in the pool that I always dreamed of."

He would swim in morning, then play wheelchair basketball at afternoon and then go to work in the cafe until late at night. He was also granted refugee status that year and allowed to remain in Greece.

Although it was exhausting, it worked and he won two medals at the Greek Para Swimming National Championships in 2016. People started to notice.

Al Hussein states that local journalists started writing about the refugee who was injured in the Syrian conflict and had arrived at Athens to be trained.

"I wanted them to know how important the sport was in helping me integrate into Greek society, and mentally cope with all that I had been through."

Al Hussein was asked by the United Nations and the Greek Paralympic Committee to join the Olympic torch as it travels from Athens, Greece to Rio. This was a month later.

After accepting, he told reporters that despite being impossible, he still loved to be a Paralympics participant and show the world what refugees can do.

Inspired by Al Hussein's incredible journey, the International Paralympic Committee offered Al Hussein the opportunity to be part of the first Independent Paralympic Team - he would travel to Rio.

Al Hussein holds the flag of Rio 2016's first Independent Paralympic Team

All was dark on September 7, 2016, just as it was four years ago.

Al Hussein felt tight in his chest and had a short breath. He could not distinguish the muffled sounds. He stood up and realized he was still alive.

Al Hussein took deep breaths, grasped the pole he was holding, and made his first steps into Brazil's famous Maracana Stadium.

As 60,000 cheered his arrival, the Paralympic opening ceremony flag bearer was greeted by a "wall of noise". He thought to himself, "This must have been a dream," as he was so proud of his accomplishments.

After losing his leg during the war, paying off smugglers and fighting a life-threatening illness, he was forced to live on the streets, eating grass to survive.

Al Hussein, who had only returned to the sport one year prior, was unable compete for a Rio 2016 medal. He returned home carrying the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which is given to the athlete who best exemplifies Games spirit and excites the world.

Although he has worked hard over the years, preparations for Tokyo were severely affected by the coronavirus epidemic.

He says, "During lockdown, I couldn't get to the pool and that was a real struggle with athletes with disabilities."

"It was difficult financially because I didn't have any support nor competitions, and my job was closed. But I persevered - that's what I do every day.

He is now 32 and will be in Tokyo as part of the Paralympic Refugee Team, a six-strong team. He is eager to continue the story he started five years ago.

Al Hussein will be competing in the 100m breaststroke heat. He said, "Tokyo marks an important moment for unity, hope, and my message specifically to refugees around the globe is to never lose heart."

"There was a lot to be suffered in my journey. But I hope that people who read about me or see me realize that life does not end just because you are a refugee or disabled.

"No matter how difficult your life is, there are still many things you can do and many things you can accomplish."