Two-man refugee team appreciates Paralympic experience

Story posted September 16, 2016 in 2016 Paralympics Games by Shannon Ryan.

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Of the nearly 4,000 athletes competing in the Rio Paralympics, all but two are doing so for their country.

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Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein and Iranian-born discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up the first refugee team at the Paralympics.

"All the years I dedicated to sports did not go in vain," said Al Hussein, who lost part of his right leg in a bombing in his Syrian hometown.

"I think we were trying to show that the values that the (Paralympics) holds is to provide opportunities regardless of the circumstances of individuals with impairments," said chef de mission Tony Sainsbury, regarding the creation of the refugee team. "Those opportunities exist for them provided that they can demonstrate that they are of the right standard of potential."

Sainsbury said athletes must meet three criteria to be considered. They need to be officially recognized as a refugee, who had sought and was granted asylum. They needed to return from Brazil to the nations where they sought asylum, and they had to prove a "credible performance," he said.

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Mohamad Alabed, who lived in the same area as Al Hussein, fled Syria and now resides in the Netherlands. He said while he doesn't know Al Hussein personally, "everyone knows of the heroic Syrian swimmer."

While neither refugee competitor medaled, Al Hussein hopes to leave behind a different type of legacy at the Paralympic Games. He says he feels "having represented the refugees of the world and having the word 'refugee' circulated throughout the world is the most important thing I could have done."

"I am a refugee, that was out of my hands," he said. "I was injured, that was out of my hands, I am an athlete, this is my choice."


(Shannon Ryan is a senior journalism major at Penn State University. Penn State and the University of Georgia partnered with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics. This story was originally published by the AP in Summer Games 2016.)