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From Syria to the Paralympics: A refugee finds strength in kayaking

Among the athletes at the Tokyo Paralympics are six members of the refugee team. One of them is Syrian kayaker Anas Al Khalifa. DW's Ben Bathke heard his extraordinary and moving story in Germany before he flew to Japan.

On a warm and sunny August day, Anas Al Khalifa is training with his coach on the Saale river in the eastern German city of Halle.

The 28-year-old Syrian fled from the war in his home country in 2011 and arrived in Germany four years later. Watching him guide his kayak powerfully through the quiet water with even strokes and a concentrated face, it's hard to believe that he only started practicing less than half a year ago. You probably also wouldn't notice that he's wheelchair-bound.

In December 2018, Anas suffered a spinal cord injury when he fell off the roof of a two-storey building while installing solar panels in nearby Magdeburg, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

"After the accident, I didn't know what to do," Anas told DW. "I wasn't able to work, couldn't walk, my life was over. But this sport has changed my entire life. The disability is in your head only. You can do everything, even if you've lost your legs or arms. There were always good people by my side."


A work accident in December 2018 left Syrian refugee Anas without the use of his legs | Photo: Getty (via DW)


One of those people is Ognyana Dusheva. The Bulgarian Olympic medalist has coached kayaking and canoeing in seven countries, including Turkey, Iran and China. A year ago, the 57-year old, known a Ogi, met Anas at the canoe club in Halle where she was working as a Para coach. His physiotherapist had encouraged him to try kayaking.

"I saw strong boy in the wheelchair with very sad eyes. There was nothing. I asked him: 'Do you want to do sport with me? Kayak? It's one boat, and I can get you ready for Tokyo.' 'What is this Tokyo?,' he asked. I said: 'The Paralympic Games, it's everyone's dream.'"


Success despite limited resources

In late June, about one year after he first sat in a kayak, Anas was named one of six members of the refugee team for the Tokyo Paralympics. The five men and one woman hail from Afghanistan, Burundi, Iran and Syria, representing four sports – athletics, swimming, canoeing, taekwondo — and currently live and train in Germany, Greece, Rwanda and the United States.

To achieve his goal, Anas trained three times a day, seven days a week. His workout regime is so intense that he needs a neck and back massage each night, he says. While the massages are free of charge thanks to the German national Para team, he has to cover most other expenses out of his own pocket.

"I need protein, vitamins and other things to compete on a high level," Anas says. "My wish is to be treated like all the other athletes."

But it hasn't been a level playing field. Unlike the German Para athletes training for Tokyo, Anas had to pause his on-the-water training with his coach for six months due to the pandemic. It wasn't until late March, just five months before the Games, that he was able to resume.

According to coach Ogi, her previous athletes usually had a whole year to prepare for a competition. "I can't put into words what Anas has done. He never said it was too much. Nobody else could have done what he did."

From Syria to Germany in four years
After training, Anas invites me to his small apartment, which he currently shares with his sister and her two young children. His sister serves a delicious Syrian dish, followed by baklava and knafeh deserts with Arabic coffee. But there's little else in the apartment from their homeland. They had to leave everything behind 10 years ago when he fled the war.

After spending two years in a camp for internally displaced people, Anas escaped to nearby Turkey, where he worked as a fruit picker. From there, he eventually traveled to Germany via Greece. He wasn't sure he'd survive the month-long odyssey.

He recalls being on an overcrowded boat crossing from Turkey to a Greek island when they ran out of fuel. When he talks about it, his voice cracks with emotion.

"The waves were rocking the boat from left to right, we were waiting for 30 minutes," he explains, his voice cracking with emotion. "One of the boys said he could fix it, but the men would have to jump into the water. We didn't have a choice."

All men jumped into the water, only women and children stayed on the boat, the boy managed to restart the engine, and they eventually made it to safety. "When we ran out of gas, all of us thought we would die," says Anas. "Nobody would have heard us cry or scream in the water."



Devastating news, new motivation


During this and other difficult times, like his life-altering injury, Anas always had his brother to talk to and confide in. But eight months ago, his brother was killed in Syria. The two hadn't seen each other since their family was separated in 2011. Anas was devastated. But coach Ogi told him his brother would want him to continue training.

"It was a shock for me, first because I know Anas is a talent, and he can change his life in this boat," she said. "I told him: 'No, you must stay in this sport because your brother loved this sport. He will be there in the sky and he will protect and help you. You must continue for him.'"

"And so at the end of March, we started training again. And all the time I feel that this new power and motivation for training came because of his brother. Anas wants to do his best and say, 'brother, I did this for you.'"

With Ogi's help, Anas once again managed to find strength in adversity and make his dream of competing in the Paralympics come true. "My first goal in Tokyo is to win a medal. The second goal is to win for my brother. He supported me a lot," he said.

After Tokyo, Anas has his eyes set on the canoe sprint world championships in mid-September. His next big goal is to compete at the Paris Games in 2024 — on the German ticket.

By Benjamin Bathke
 DW

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