In his native Syria, Ibrahim Al-Hussein often swam in the Euphrates River. He would climb to the top of the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, jump and dive into the water.
In 2011, the civil war in Syria started. Al-Hussein’s neighborhood was shelled and the bridge was destroyed. Al-Hussein lost part of his right leg.
On Tuesday, the 27-year-old athlete will carry the Olympic Flame in Athens as part of the torch relay for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“After 20 years, I have achieved what I dreamed of,” Al-Hussein told UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency. “I used to dream to be a participant in the Olympics. Now, I have achieved more than that. I have achieved carrying the flame.”
Al-Hussein will run with the flame through the Eleonas refugee camp in Athens, home to around 1,500 displaced people. The act aims to build empathy for refugees at a time when nearly 60 million people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes, the highest number since World War II.
“This is very important, since at a time of growing xenophobia and intolerance, it will send a message of hope for all refugees in the world and generate much-needed awareness of their plight,” Aikaterini Kitidi, a spokesperson for UNHCR told ABC News.
After Al-Hussein lost his leg, he fled to Turkey. There, he taught himself to walk again. After a year of recovery, he fled to Greece, where he has been granted asylum.
He now swims the 50-meter freestyle in about 28 seconds, less than three seconds slower than before he lost part of his leg. Al-Hussein, who uses a prosthetic leg, follows a demanding training schedule. He swims three times a week with a Greek nonprofit group for athletes with disabilities and has also joined a wheelchair basketball team in Greece.
At the same time, he works overnight shifts at a café. He will not participate in the Olympics. But in June, he will compete in the Panhellenic games for swimmers with disabilities.
“My goal is to never give up. But to go on, to always go forward. And that I can achieve that through sports,” said Al-Hussein, who said his love for swimming came from his father, a swim coach.
“I am carrying the flame for myself but also for Syrians, for refugees everywhere, for Greece, for sports, for my swimming and basketball teams," he said.
Al-Hussein’s run with the Olympic Flame is part of a number of initiatives surrounding the Olympics intended to bring attention to refugees. Between five and 10 registered refugees are expected to participate in the Olympics later this year as part of team “Refugee Olympic Athletes.”