Syrian refugee carries Olympic flame through Athens

Symbolic gesture intended to show solidarity with the world's refugees at a time when millions are fleeing war and persecution worldwide.

Syrian refugee carries the Olympic flame in Athens

Ibrahim Al-Hussein carries the Olympic torch inside the Eleonas temporary accommodation site in Athens.   © UNHCR/A. Zavallis

ATHENS, Greece, April 26 (UNHCR) - Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al-Hussein carried the Olympic flame through an Athens centre for refugees on Tuesday evening as part of the torch relay for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The symbolic gesture was intended to show solidarity with the world's refugees at a time when millions are fleeing war and persecution worldwide.

It was a proud moment for the 27-year-old refugee and athlete, who resumed swimming and basketball last year in Greece after his promising sports career in Syria was cut short by war -- and a 2012 bombing that led to the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Ibrahim now walks with a prosthetic.

Hundreds of refugees gathered around him as he walked with the flame held high through Eleonas, the Athens centre housing some 1,500 asylum-seekers. Ibrahim smiled even as he was mobbed by media cameras and refugees taking selfies on their smartphones.

"I've arrived," Ibrahim told reporters. "Twenty-two years I've been an athlete and today I've reached my dream of being part of the Olympics. ...It is my honour to hold the torch, it is truly an honour."

Hellenic Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos, who handed Ibrahim the flame, called the event "one of the greatest moments in my sport career."

"This flame brings solidarity and peace to people around the world," Capralos said. "Ibrahim with the flame in his hands shows that....we can have a better world for all of us."

The Rio flame was lit on April 21 in Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece's southern Peloponnese, launching a week-long, 2,235-kilometre torch relay through the country. Stops included the historic town of Marathon and the islands of Zante and Corfu.

On Wednesday the flame will be handed over to Brazilian officials in a ceremony at Athens' Panathinaiko stadium, where the 1896 Olympics were held. By then the flame will already have passed through 450 hands, including Ibrahim's. After leaving Greece, the flame will go to Geneva, Switzerland for a ceremony at the United Nations.

The torch relay's 95-day Brazilian segment begins on May 3. It culminates in the Games' opening ceremony on August 5 at Rio's Maracana Stadium where the flame will light the Olympic cauldron.

Growing up in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, Ibrahim's life revolved around swimming, basketball and judo wrestling. Ibrahim's father, a swim coach, guided him to wins in several local and national competitions. Then the war began. He lost part of his leg in 2012 when a bomb fell on him as he rushed to help an injured friend. Ibrahim fled Syria and spent a year in Turkey, recovering from his injuries and teaching himself to walk again on a prosthetic leg.

In 2014, Ibrahim arrived on the Greek island of Samos in a rubber dinghy. Months later he received refugee status. In Greece, he has rebuilt his identity as an athlete, adhering to a rigorous schedule that includes daily practices with swimming and basketball leagues for people with disabilities. He also works an overnight shift in a cafe.

"I am carrying the flame for myself, but also for Syrians, for refugees everywhere, for Greece, for sports, for my swimming and basketball teams," Ibrahim told the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in an interview last week. "My goal is to never give up. But to go on, to always go forward. And that I can achieve through sports."

This year, for the first time a team of 5 to 10 registered refugee athletes will compete in the Olympics as part of a special team. They will march behind the Olympic flag.

By Tania Karas in Athens, Greece