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Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through Brasilia


Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through Brasilia

Twelve-year-old Syrian schoolgirl Hanan bore the Olympic flame on the first stage of its relay across Brazil to the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Rio on August 5.
3 May 2016
Syrian refugee Hanan Dacka takes part in the 2016 Olympic Games torch relay in Brasilia, Brazil, on May 3rd, 2016.

BRASILIA, Brazil, May 3 (UNHCR) - Flanked by cheering Brazilians, 12-year-old Syrian refugee Hanan Dacka held the Olympic flame aloft and trotted with it through Brasilia at the start of a relay across the host country in the run up to the Olympic Games in August.

The symbolic gesture was intended to show solidarity with the world's displaced at a time when nearly 60 million people like Hanan have been driven from their homes by war and persecution worldwide.

It was a proud moment for the youngster, whose family fled their home in Idlib in northwest Syria, to seek safety and a new life half-a-world away in Brazil last year under a special humanitarian visa programme giving Syrians a chance to start over.

A student in secondary school in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, Hanan jogged with the flame along a packed street in the Brazilian capital as a crowd cheered and swayed to music. Hundreds of civil servants working in the neighbouring governmental offices took a break to witness the relay.

"The most important thing in sport is to have fun and make friends," said Hanan before taking up the flame. "By carrying the Olympic Torch, people from all over the world will know that refugees are real people, and that we can do positive things," she added.

The flame reached Brazil at the weekend, and will be carried through 300 towns and cities en route to the Games' opening ceremony on August 5 at Rio's Maracana Stadium, where it will light the Olympic cauldron.

Hanan is the second refugee to carry the flame, after her compatriot Ibrahim Al-Hussein bore the torch last week through a centre for refugees in Athens, Greece. She was chosen for the honour by the Rio 2016 the Organizing Committee, after her name was put forward by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Brazil.

Hanan and her father, Khaled, mother Yusra, brother Mostafá and baby sister Yara came to Brazil along with other relatives just over a year ago, after spending two-and-a-half years at Zaatari refugee camp, in Jordan.

They benefited from the South American country's "open door" policy toward survivors of the war in Syria, allowing them to travel to Brazil under a simplified visa process. So far, some 8,000 visas have been issued by the Brazilian authorities.

Already fluent in Portuguese, Hanan attends school in São Paulo where she quickly made Brazilian friends. She is helping her family of 11 settle into the country, which her father credited with allowing him to "turn back into a human being."

She was accompanied by several Brazilian Olympic medal holders and a former surf world champion as she carried the flame along the city's Esplanade of Ministries. She said: "I'm not feeling like a refugee. I'm feeling like another Brazilian carrying the torch today."

She took a moment to thank Brazil and its people for welcoming her family, and said she hoped that her participation in the relay would "send a message for a world without war and with more friendship."

For the first time ever, a team of refugee athletes will compete this year under the Olympic flag. The team´s composition will be announced in early June.

Last week, the Olympic flame made a symbolic stop in Switzerland before heading to Brazil. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon used the occasion to honour the refugee athletes.

"I welcome the refugee team and will cheer them with all my might. The team gives the opportunity to talented athletes who were forced to flee their homes to chase gold," he said. "The world will see refugees as they deserve to be seen - as talented, strong, inspiring people. Win or lose, they are champions of the Olympic Spirit."

The ongoing conflict in Syria is the main driver of the current global refugee crisis. More than 4.8 million Syrians been driven into exile in its neighbouring countries alone, with more like Hanan seeking safety further afield.

To read a story about Hanan and her family starting over in Brazil, please click here.

By Luiz Fernando Godinho, in Brasilia, Brazil