Wheelchair fencing brings life and new purpose to refugee from Iraq

Wissam Sami, a 29 year-old refugee from Iraq, during his training on wheelchair fencing at a stadium in Athens. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

In a sports stadium in Athens, fencers take their sabres and move them around aiming for their opponent’s chest and shoulders. Among them is Wissam Sami, a 29-year-old refugee from Iraq, who is practicing wheelchair fencing, under the guidance of his Greek coach.

“When I take the sword, my heart fills with joy,” says Wissam and his eyes are shining with excitement. Although he has tried many Paralympic sports, fencing fascinated him right from the start. “As soon as I saw it, I felt it in my heart that this was the sport I wanted to practice”.

Fighting difficult battles is not unusual for Wissam, who has a lower body impairment. At the age of three, his mother took him to hospital for a persistent fever where he was mistakenly administered an injection meant for adults. The effects left his right leg permanently damaged, meaning that he now walks with a severe limp. In Iraq, he did not manage to finish school because of the war but he has always been very active. He learned English, played volley ball, and studied photography in a youth center. “I got a certificate, but I had to leave it back when I fled,” he says.

Wissam fled Iraq after ISIS killed his younger brother, who was a local policeman. After a long and difficult journey through Syria and then in Turkey, he arrived on the Greek island of Samos in 2016. There, he lived in a small tent for six months in very difficult conditions. With support by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Wissam was referred for medical assistance and eventually moved to Athens, in a UNHCR-rented apartment.

In Athens, his disability did not stop him from being active and assisting other refugees. He has volunteered as a teacher of computer lessons, as an interpreter and as a photographer in various events in many organizations. But it has not always been easy. “Sometimes, you feel you are random. Life is random here,” he says of the daily struggle.

Wissam took up fencing two years ago and this changed his life. He is member of the Refugees Team of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee, which supports refugees with disabilities follow sports programs with a view to empower them and contribute to their social integration. “Wissam Sami is one of the many athletes that have been supported through our sports programs offered to refugees with disabilities. We are very proud of his sports performance but also of his role as a positive model for motivating other refugees with disabilities to participate in Paralympic sports and empower themselves” says Georgios Fountoulakis, President of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee.

Wissam Sami

Fencing was the Paralympic sport that fascinated Wissam right from the start. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Wissam Sami

Wissam getting ready in order to begin his training on wheelchair fencing that fills his heart with joy. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Wissam Sami

Wissam Sami, a 29-year-old Iraqi refugee, during his training on wheelchair fencing at a sports hall in Athens. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Wissam Sami

Wissam (L) and his coach in wheelchair fencing Leonidas Koukos (R) during Wissam's training at a sports hall in Athens. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

In 2018, Wissam received a positive decision on his asylum claim and was recognized as a refugee in Greece. This was for Wissam an important step closer to realizing his dreams.

In 2019, he traveled to Poland and competed in fencing games with champions, making his international debut as an independent athlete in the men’s sabre category A. “I was excited; I never thought I would play with champions”. The big surprise was his first game with an athlete from Iraq that represented his country, while Wissam played for refugees, with a refugee flag, which made him feel deeply honored. Even though Wissam did not win in any game, he said that when he competes, he doesn’t think if he wins or not, he just enjoys it.

Wissam practices twice per week. His coach, Leonidas Koukos, praises his inner strength, passion, and skills. “I love working with Wissam. He is very persistent and hard-working, which is exactly what someone wants from an athlete.” And he adds jokingly: “When we told Wissam we would go to Poland and there is a camp there, he was afraid; it was a sports camp, but the word “camp” had a different connotation for him.”

As a recognized refugee in Greece, and with an impairment, Wissam faces many challenges. His residence permit was stolen in a bus and he is now struggling with the bureaucracy in order to get a new one. He has the determination to find a job and speaks three languages – English, Greek, and Arabic – but he says that when potential employers notice his disability, they refuse to offer him a position. ‘When you are alone, when you have difficulty finding a job and you cannot make ends meet, and you have a dream, how can you go on with your life?’ he asks.

But Wissam is strong and ambitious, he doesn’t lose hope. “I believe the best moment in my life has not come yet. My dream is to go to Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020. If I do, I need to win just one game and after that I will have a new life in Greece.”