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Two brothers competing in Tokyo: one for Syria, the other for refugees

A photo of two Syrian brothers, competing for different teams at the Olympics, hugging each other in Tokyo went viral on social media earlier this week.

Mohamad Maso is representing war-torn Syria in the triathlon event, while his younger brother Alaa will swim for the Olympic refugee team.

Some media and internet users wrongly believed that the photo of the brothers' embrace showed them meeting after years of separation due to the conflict in Syria.

But the pair, originally from Aleppo, live in Germany after leaving Syria, where their parents still live, in 2015 to undertake the perilous journey to Europe together.

"The photo has taken on a scale that we couldn't have imagined," said Safwan al-Hindi, the communications manager of the Syrian sports federation.

"Mohamad and Alaa live together in Germany. They arrived together in Tokyo. A lot of their family still lives in Syria.

"(The embrace was) a spontaneous gesture between two brothers. But some media and social networks took the story in another direction."

Al-Hindi said Alaa, 21, chose to join the IOC's refugee team and said he was not rejected by Syria.

Alaa said earlier this month that swimming helped him cope with the conflict.

Syria's civil war has killed around 500,000 people, displaced millions, and ravaged infrastructure since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

Alaa was unable to train from 2012-2014 but took up the sport again after settling in Germany.

"Thanks to sports, I was able to detach myself from a lot of negativity and gain faith in my personal life during training; because the harder I trained, the better I got, and that's what I'm trying to build my life on -- staying positive, creative and healthy and waiting for the sun to rise above us," Alaa told

The 28-year-old Mohamad, who like his brother was coached by his father from a young age, will race in the triathlon on Monday.

He is one of six athletes competing under the Syrian flag in Japan, including 12-year-old table tennis player Hend Zaza, who became the youngest Olympian since 1968 when she lost in the preliminary round on Saturday.

There are also several other Syrians in the refugee team, including swimmer Yusra Mardini who also featured in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

Since their first Olympics in 1948 in London, Syria have won three medals, with heptathlete Ghada Shouaa the only gold medallist in 1996 in Atlanta.

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