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The Syrian refugee aiming to become an Olympic swimmer

posted on: Jun 7, 2019

Once upon a time, water was Eid Aljazairli’s greatest adversary, a vast expanse that stood between him and a life in Europe. Now, it sustains his greatest ambition.

Aljazairli was a non-swimmer when he fled Damascus and took his chances on a small, barely seaworthy vessel that took him across the Mediterranean. Now he spends four hours each day in a swimming pool and dreams of making it to the Olympics.

“My story starts with the American swimmer Michael Phelps,” the 24-year-old says, sitting in a friend’s flat in north-east London. “I was sitting at home late at night and I saw a video of him on YouTube by chance.

“I saw him swimming and flying. He really inspired me and ignited a passion inside me,” he adds. “After watching two hours of films, I just said to myself: this is something I have to do.”

Aljazairli was training to be an accountant and working as a visual merchandiser, developing floor plans and three-dimensional displays for shops when the Syrian war broke out.

He arrived in Britain from Damascus in 2016, settling first in Scotland and then in the outskirts of London. When he was granted a five-year visa to remain in Britain this January, he moved to a hostel. And started swimming.

Within six months, he has gone from barely being able to swim at all to clocking 43 seconds for the 50-metre freestyle. His times remain well short of Olympic qualifying levels, but his coaches reckon he could compete in a refugee team if the Rio 2016 innovation is repeated at the Tokyo games in 2020.

The swimming Syrian, who lives on a meagre allowance of £5 a day, says he saves on groceries so as to put money aside for his monthly membership at the Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre. “I started practising, and I was so excited at first. When I started, I could not swim two or three metres, and I didn’t know why because it looked so easy on the video,” he says.

Swimming takes him away from everything and transports him to another world where he feels untouchable, he says. “When you have a hard day and have a lot going on, you just go into the water and enter another world. In the water you cannot hear or see anyone … All I have is 25 metres and my passion to get to the Olympics.”

Aljazairli working on his butterfly technique
Aljazairli working on his butterfly technique. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Daniel Bullock, a local coach who has taken Aljazairli on, says the pace of his progress is remarkable – but that he has a way to go to get to hit the Olympic standard (currently the best in the world swim approximately twice as fast as him). “I hope that there will be mini-Olympics within the bigger event … We have been trying to support Eid’s application and find out whether there will be another like that,” he says.

He adds: “The reason so many people have taken Eid’s story to heart and helped him … is that with little help, he has taught himself to swim in six months. He’s remarkable in his own right and has made rapid progress. His story is really an inspiration. I hope he will go back to Syria and be the next minister for swimming and generate interest in it,” Bullock adds.

A crowdfunding page has been set up to help raise money to give Aljazairli the right support to compete.

Aljazairli is now learning English and wants to go to university in September, but swimming is now a big part of his life. “I currently swim from 6am to 8am and 6pm to 8pm. I can organise my life around it,” he says.

“When people hear my dream of swimming in the Olympics and I tell them I want to be like Michael Phelps, people laugh … They say, ‘You are a refugee and you get £5 a day, don’t waste your time and do other things.’ But I believe in myself and that I can do anything. When I hear people say that, it pushes me harder. I am not just a refugee, but I am a dreamer.”

Bullock says: “Eid wants to go and be competitive. He has a long way to go to do that. He needs help with nutrition and help with strength and conditioning. He needs to swim in a pool bigger than 25 metres … We are a stepping stone helping him through to the next stage.”