"His attitude is changing. The sport is bringing him out of his shell. Even in the short time we've been in Portugal, he's become more independent and speaks more."
Two years ago, Najib Alhaj Ali was at his home in Homs, Syria, when a bomb attack left him with a spinal cord injury, unable to feel anything below his naval. His father took him to a make-shift clinic after the attack but did not manage to get treatment.
The then 12-year-old boy and his family decided to escape from war in Syria and even crossed the Mediterranean Sea on rubber dinghy from Turkey to Greece, where they eventually were granted asylum in 2016.
But thanks to Para sport, the future is looking brighter for Najib.
Since October 2016, he is one of the participants of the “Paralympic Education Development in Refugee Populations,” a project funded by the Agitos Foundation’s Grant Support Programme (GSP) and supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).
“In the last two years the Agitos Foundation has provided opportunities for the most vulnerable group of refugees, those with an impairment, to find in Para sport a tool for social inclusion and a better life. These efforts will continue in 2018 with a project to create a net of institutions that provide access to Para sport for refugees in Europe”, said Jose Cabo, Agitos Foundation Development Senior Manager.
The project was proposed by the Hellenic Paralympic Committee to create Paralympic awareness and training opportunities for refugees with impairments, both in their country and neighbouring nations. Refugees also have the chance to participate in training camps and compete in local and national competitions.
“We thought it'd be good to submit a proposal to the Agitos Foundation to develop a Para sports programme for refugees with disabilities”, said Vassilis Kalyvas, sports director at the Hellenic Paralympic Committee who leads the GSP project. “The motto of the Agitos Foundation is "Developing Sport. Changing Lives” and we thought this would be the case.”
With the support of UNHCR, the Hellenic Paralympic Committee got in touch with refugees with disabilities, who are living in rented apartments in Athens through EC-funded ESTIA programme, implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with Municipalities and NGOs. Najib and his family are living in one of the apartments run by ADDMA, the Development Agency of Athens Municipality, and this is how he learned about the Para sports programme.
A year after starting training and having already participated in two national competitions in Greece, in December Najib had the opportunity to make his international debut at the IWAS World Games 2017 in Vila Real de Santo Antonio, Portugal.
Invited by the International Wheelchair Federation (IWAS) and the Agitos Foudation, the 14-year-old to competed in the U18s 100m and 200m wheelchair racing, and also took the opportunity for international World Para Athletics classification.
“The IWAS World Games 2017 marked the first occasion for us to welcome refugee athletes to compete at the Games. As an integral part of the Paralympic pathway for athletes with physical impairments, the IWAS World Games was a fitting international debut for Najib and we were delighted to support his participation”, said IWAS Chief Executive Officer, Charmaine Hooper. “We look forward to following Najib's journey and hope to welcome him back to an IWAS World Games in the future.”
This was not only the first international competition for Najib, but also his first ever flight and trip abroad after his arrival in Greece in other circumstances.
“His attitude is changing. The sport is bringing him out of his shell”, said Najib’s mom Faten Shahuod. “He was at home all the time but now, he's moving about and playing sport. He became more independent, riding his wheelchair on his own, doing his things independently.
“He couldn't speak to people at all. Now he's speaking to everyone. Even in the short time we've been in Portugal, he's become more independent and speaks more.”
After the competition, against much more experienced and older athletes, the aspiring Paralympian reflected upon his achievements and his future goals. “I am really happy because I met new people from Brazil, UAE and others. When I go back to Greece I will train more. Instead of one hour I will train two. Instead of two I will train three. So I can start winning races.
“My dream is to get more treatment, to continue my studies, and compete in the Paralympics.”