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The Making of the Refugee Paralympic Team

Assembling the first refugee team for the Paralympics in Rio was a reminder of the barriers faced by forced migrants. Team leader and experienced Paralympics organizer Tony Sainsbury talks about the struggle to make it happen.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Ibrahim al-Hussein from Syria will represent the Paralympic refugee team at Rio. UNHCR/Yorgos Kyvernitis

It took Yusra Mardini slightly less than one minute and 10 seconds to swim her way to worldwide acclaim. The Syrian teenager and refugee, who won her heat in the women’s 100m butterfly, representing the first refugee team at the Olympics, was one of the early stars of last month’s Games in Rio.

Another Syrian swimmer, Ibrahim al-Hussein, now aims to repeat her heroics for the first refugee team at the Rio Paralympics starting on September 7. The Greece-based al-Hussein is joined by Iranian-born discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour, who has asylum in the U.S. Al-Hussein, a leg amputee, will race in the men’s 50m and 100m freestyle S10 events. Nasajpour will compete in the F37 discus.

The first-time Paralympians will be looked after by Tony Sainsbury, a five-times Chef de Mission of the British Paralympic team and one of the most experienced administrators in sport. A winner of the Paralympic Order, he was tasked by the CEO of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Xavier Gonzalez, with making the team happen.

Sainsbury, a former director of sport at the University of Manchester, became one of the pioneers of coaching disabled and impaired athletes after volunteering to help a wheelchair basketball team in the 1970s.

Ahead of the Paralympic opening ceremony, which the refugee team will lead out, attention has focused on al-Hussein. In April he memorably carried the Olympic torch through a refugee camp outside the Greek capital, Athens. The 27-year-old, who had been a dedicated athlete, lost his leg in a rocket attack early in the Syrian civil war. After later fleeing to Turkey, he received refugee status in Greece, where he began to train and reconstruct his sporting ambition.

“When I found out I would be competing in the Games, I was so happy I couldn’t sit still,” al-Hussein says. “I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. It was such a wonderful feeling.”

Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, hailed the team as “a symbol of the strength and determination of all refugees with disabilities in overcoming significant odds.”

Refugees Deeply: How did the refugee team for the Paralympics come about?

Tony Sainsbury: Back in February there were discussions within the IPC after work had begun on putting together an Olympic refugee team.

That news was filtering through. They asked me to look at providing a Paralympic team without having people in the frame. Refugees have always been part of Paralympic sport; we’ve had throughout its history people coming to us from war situations where they have been disabled or got impairments.

The idea came to the fore again when Ibrahim [al-Hussein] carried the Olympic torch in Greece after the lighting ceremony. The project became real. The Greek National Paralympic Committee then got in touch and wanted to get more involved in refugee camps. We started to talk with Ibrahim.

Refugees Deeply: Who qualifies for the team and how was it selected? How did refugee or asylum status affect efforts to build a team?

Sainsbury: We established three criteria for the team. First, they must have an official refugee or asylum-granted status. No maybes – people thinking about it sometime in the future wouldn’t cut it. Secondly, they had to be athletes who could leave their host country, move to Rio and go back again. We quickly realized that leaving was not going to be a problem for them but returning was an issue. The rules in Europe mean you can travel inside Europe but not outside. Making sure they could return was quite difficult. If we brought someone to the games and they found themselves in limbo it would have been morally wrong.

Thirdly, they had to have credible performance that they could demonstrate: not guaranteed medal or champion potential but some evidence they could enter the field of play as credible sportsmen and sportswomen. Ibrahim took part in the Greek national swimming championships. And Shahrad [Nasajpour] was at the U.S. discus trials and recorded a decent standard.

Ibrahim al-Hussein lights the Olympic torch as the relay came to the refugee camp in Elaionas, outside Athens. (Milos Bicanski)

Ibrahim al-Hussein lights the Olympic torch as the relay came to the refugee camp in Elaionas, outside Athens. (Milos Bicanski)

Originally we had probably six or seven names from NPCs (National Paralympic Committees), but for different reasons, mainly to do with their refugee or asylum status, it didn’t work out. We waited until August 15 and left it that late to draw the line. The time was tight; we were only at it for two months. We did everything we absolutely could. When you think how many refugee athletes were at the Olympics –10 out of 10,800; then two from 4,200 at the Paralympics – it means that number isn’t an issue.

Refugees Deeply: Is it something new to have refugees competing at the Paralympics or is it that we’re recognizing refugees for the first time?

Sainsbury: Yes, I’m absolutely convinced there have been past Paralympian refugees. In my own time as U.K. Paralympic team Chef de Mission, we had athletes in my team who came to Britain as asylum seekers and who participated in the British team. Their origin, their starting point, was as we just described. In my mind I can think of people in my teams whose origins were in countries who had long been in conflict who became Brits. It’s not a new phenomenon; it’s the first time we’ve recognized this.

Refugees Deeply: Why did you want to get involved and what would success look like for the first refugee team?

Sainsbury: If the IPC is true to its values, it should want to do something about the refugee issue. It’s inevitable that out of war-torn countries and other similar very challenging situations there will be people out there who have an ambition to come to the Paralympics. We embrace that and believe the IPC has a responsibility. This isn’t a one-off. At the 2017 World Championships in London we will follow up, and the Agitos Foundation, the project support arm of the IPC, will get involved with the Paralympic athletes. Can you see an end to the refugee problem in the next 10 years? Like our IOC colleagues, I think you’ll see a refugee team at the Paralympics for years to come.

The Independent [refugees] team is a role model in a dramatic, dynamic way. These two guys are appearing on the world stage. Maybe someone in a refugee camp or elsewhere is going to see them just for a few minutes on a television and think: “I’ve got an impairment, why can’t I do that?” If we’ve got NPCs saying they’ve got guys who want to join in the next six months it’ll have been a success.

Refugees Deeply: Can Ibrahim and Shahrad reach a final, or even get a medal?

Sainsbury: You never know on the day. They deserve to be here. But they’re in very strong classes.

The Paralympic refugee team’s progress can be followed on their Facebook page.

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