By Jared Malsin
The journey of Rami Anis from war-struck Aleppo to Rio de Janeiro
In October of 2011, the popular uprising in Syria was turning from protest to armed rebellion. In the city of Aleppo, a young champion swimmer named Rami Anis was worried about his future. He had risen to become one of Syria’s top athletes as a teenager, but all that was at risk with bombs exploding and the government rounding up suspected rebels.
As a 20-year-old youth, Rami could have been drafted into the Syrian government military, the same force the regime employed to fire on protesters and shell civilian neighborhoods. “I do not want to be in a war where all the victims are Syrians. So, I did not want to do the military service,” he said in a phone interview in July.
Instead, like so many others, he fled. His family sent him by car across the Turkish border to the city of Antakya, then by plane to Istanbul, where he joined an older brother who lived there. It was the start of a long odyssey that would eventually see him settle in Belgium as a refugee.
Now at the age of 25, Anis is a member of the Refugee Olympic Team, a group of 10 athletes who will march under the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony of the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro on Friday. He will join another Syrian swimmer, runners from South Sudan and Ethiopia, and two judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team is organized by the International Olympic Committee with the help of national Olympic committees hosting the athletes in Belgium, Brazil, Luxembourg, and Germany.
The team is stateless, representing the world’s refugees at a moment when the planet is grappling with the largest mass movement of people since World War Two. The team offers a poignant and heroic storyline at the troubled Rio Olympics, where athletes and officials are bracing for range of problems including concerns about infrastructure, unsafe water, and the Zika virus. Team Refugees carries a simple message: Hope for the millions of ordinary people currently displaced by deprivation and war.
“Refugees are just like the rest of the people of the world. They have abilities but conditions of war kept them from participating and leading normal lives,” says Anis, speaking from a training camp in Hungary in July.
Of course, Olympic athletes are far from ordinary people, and Anis is no exception. A specialist in the 100m butterfly, he began competitive training as a swimmer at the age of 14 and was soon participating in local and national competitions. As part of Syria’s national team, he traveled to compete in the Gulf and China and Europe.