ABC News(LONDON) — Rami Anis fled his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, five years ago to escape the violent civil war ravaging the country.
He also left for his swimming career, which could have come to an abrupt end if he became one of the many in Syria who were kidnapped or forced to join the government’s army.
“I thought that I would be back after two months,” Anis, now 25, told ABC News. “But unfortunately the war kept getting worse.”
Now he is in Rio as part of the first refugee team to ever participate in the Olympics.
“I’m very proud. It’s the dream of any athlete to participate in the Olympics,” he said. “I will carry the International Olympic Committee’s flag, but my soul and heart will be with my home, Syria.”
Anis’ love for swimming came from his uncles who are Syrian swimming champions. He has been swimming since he was 7 years old and professionally since he was 14.
After leaving Syria, his first stop was Turkey, where he trained with a local swimming club. But he was unable to join competitions there because he didn’t have Turkish citizenship.
So he went on the move again, traveling in an inflatable boat to Greece, then going to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Germany, until finally settling in Belgium.
When Anis first arrived in his new country, he lived in a refugee camp in Fleurus near the Belgian city of Charleroi. He wanted to swim with a club nearby, but couldn’t afford it.
He tried for a few months to train in a public swimming pool before eventually asking to join a club in Ghent where he received an offer to train for free. Anis at first had to travel six hours a day between Fleurus and Ghent to train for two hours. But when his trainer, former Olympic swimmer Carine Verbauwen, found out about his situation after two weeks, she helped him find housing nearby.
Anis had at the time just come off a six-month break from swimming, so he had to train harder than usual just to get back to his normal level.
“I had to push him very hard,” Verbauen told ABC News. “I had no time for compassion.”
When Anis felt like he couldn’t train for any longer, she would say: “You have to.” When he asked if he could use his fins because that would make swimming easier, her answer would be “no.”
Today, Anis is due to swim the 100 meter freestyle. On Thursday, he will swim the 100 meter butterfly, which is his discipline. His goal is not to win a medal, but to break his own record of swimming the 100 meter butterfly in 55 seconds.
“He really seems very strong, but at the end he’s very afraid to lose face. He doesn’t want to disappoint people,” Verbauwen said.“If he can control his nerves, he can break his record. If he can’t control his nerves, I don’t know how he will do. The Olympic games aren’t just about how hard you’ve been working or how fast you can be, but also how mentally strong you are. If he fails, it will not be because he hasn’t been training a lot, but because of the mental pressure.”
She said that this year’s refugee team is about more than sports — it’s also about showing that refugees can contribute to their new countries.
“If you are displaced it doesn’t mean that you are nothing,” Verbauwen said. “People see refugees as a burden. But I think that of the millions of people who have come from war zones there are many who can bring something to the new society.”
More than 65 million people worldwide were displaced by wars, persecution and conflicts at the end of 2015, according to the United Nation’s refugee agency — the highest number since the agency’s records began.
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