Syrian refugee strives to make a splash at Tokyo Olympics

After fleeing war for safety, Eid Aljazairli has found his feet in London and dreams of swimming for Team Refugees at next Summer Games.

Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus, has been training in London and hopes to win a place swimming at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with Team Refugees.
© UNHCR/Paul Wu

Pinned to the wall of a Syrian refugee’s room in suburban London is a poster of the US swimming legend Michael Phelps. “You can’t put a limit on anything,” reads the caption. “The more you dream, the further you get.”


The athlete’s words have become something of a mantra for Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus with Olympic dreams of his own.

Aljazairli has set his heart on following in Phelps’ footsteps, hoping to compete as a swimmer in the 2020 Olympic Summer Games. Barely 12 months ago, he couldn’t swim.

“I know I’m quite late and that people have been swimming since they were four or five,” Aljazairli told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at the 25-metre pool in east London, where he trains four hours daily. “But I believe in myself. We are in this life for our dreams.”

His extraordinary progress and determination have won over the sceptics and caught the attention of coaches, fellow swimmers, over 140 donors who are supporting his efforts, as well as Stella Creasy, his local MP.

Hearing his story, Creasy featured him in a video last year. On her advice, Debbie Bliss, a local resident who has provided Aljazairli with a room and family support, set up a crowdfunding site. It has received over £5,000 towards his coaching and travel.

Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus, has been training in London and hopes to win a place swimming at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with Team Refugees. He has been hosted by Debbie Bliss, right.  © UNHCR / Paul Wu

“When I met him, he told me his Olympic dream story and I was blown away by his determination,” Bliss said of the young Syrian, who spoke no English a year ago. “He has dedicated every waking moment to his new passion.”

And yet Aljazairli, who nearly drowned in a wooden boat off the coast of Greece when fleeing Syria, could be forgiven for not wanting to go near water again.

Instead, the wall beside his Phelps poster bristles with Post-It notes that chart his progress since last January. That was when, living in a hostel and spurred by his own ambition, he first encountered the Phelps phenomenon on YouTube, and reset his life.

As soon as he could afford membership, he showed up at the local swimming pool in a £5 pair of swimming trunks, determined to teach himself.

“I tried over and over, and got home angry and sad,” he says, recalling those first days when he couldn’t make it past two metres. “I came back the next morning, and couldn’t do it again.”

Gradually, impressed by his persistence, one coach, then another, started lending him a hand. One gave him a set of goggles, another, a first lesson. Afterwards, he was ecstatic. “I’ve got the key,” he remembers thinking. “The happiness in my heart!”

One day, gasping for air, he caught glimpses of a coach’s green vest and someone screaming at him not to give up. When, chest exploding, he touched the wall, the entire pool erupted in cheers.

Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus, has been training in London and hopes to win a place swimming at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with Team Refugees. He has been supported by Daniel Bullock, a trainer, right.  © UNHCR / Paul Wu

Another instructor to notice him was Daniel Bullock, a trainer and advisory coach for Speedo. His first impression was of a rookie mimicking the techniques of his paid-up swimmers, in a neighbouring lane.

“I thought, that’s a bit cheeky,” Bullock said. Only afterwards, when Aljazairli approached him, did he take stock of the young man with the improbable dream.

At the time, Aljazairli had been saving half of his £5 a day living allowance, eating less, to afford the pool fee. He had no nutrition or fitness regime.

Bullock was first dubious, then astonished, when the pool attendants confirmed that he had only just learnt to swim. “I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years,” he said, “and I’ve never known an adult swim so fast so quickly after starting so late. He had no bad habits to unlearn.”

Bullock invited Aljazairli to join his sessions. He discovered a swimmer with a remarkable attitude to technique and making changes, and putting in the hours.

In the pool, Aljazairli is streamlined and versatile, though still mastering the tumble turn. “My favourite is butterfly – that’s the hardest stroke,” he said. “But my fastest? That’s front crawl.”

His motivation has proven infectious for his fellow swimmers. Some have donated kit – a pull buoy, paddles, fins and kickboard. One invited him to attend a swimming gala, which he left with a pocket full of medals. He has since won more local races.

Over 50-metres freestyle, his speed was down to 35 seconds, knocking eight seconds off his own best time.

Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus, has been training in London and hopes to win a place swimming at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with Team Refugees. He has been supported by Daniel Bullock, a trainer, right.  © UNHCR / Paul Wu

In October, Aljazairli’s hopes got another lift. At a meeting in Buenos Aires, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would field a team of refugees – as it did in Rio in 2016 – under the IOC flag, at the 2020 Toyko Games.

Though Aljazairli has no guarantee of a place on the team, it gives him a concrete goal.

Claude Marshall, a volunteer consultant for refugee sports activities at UNHCR, says refugee athletes have to achieve a minimum Olympic standard even to register on the radar for selection.

They need to impress the sport’s national federation and the national Olympic committee. Then, said Marshall, those two bodies would have to apply to Olympic Solidarity, a unit of the IOC which assists disadvantaged athletes, to request “a stipend for further training, with an eye to making the Olympic team.”

Nobody yet knows whether the refugee team will contain fewer or more athletes than the 10 who were sent to Rio, or what sports it will include. “It’s the IOC’s call,” Marshall said.

While Aljazairli’s progress is extraordinary, Bullock remains sanguine about the challenges he faces to achieve his Olympic goal. For Rio 2016, the men’s selection time for 50-metre freestyle was just over 23 seconds, achievable only by the best on the planet.

But, says Bullock, in earlier heats, in which many athletes from newer swimming nations competed, times were closer to 30-seconds. And that, he says, is feasible for Aljazairli. “Sub 30-secs is our objective, and with a solid winter of training I see that happening,’’ adds Bullock. “Sub 28-secs is possible in 12 months if Eid’s current rate of progress is maintained.’’

Eid Aljazairli, 24, a refugee from Damascus, has been training in London and hopes to win a place swimming at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 with Team Refugees. He is also attending college.  © UNHCR / Paul Wu

In the meantime, Aljazairli, who was recognised as a refugee by the UK in late 2017 and was studying accountancy at Damascus University before the war, has to keep the rest of his life afloat.

On top of swimming, he is studying English and Maths at a local college, and taking additional classes to prepare for international English exams. Another goal is to study accounting at the London School of Economics, to finish the degree started back home.

“I’m proud to be a refugee, but I am not just that. I’m a dreamer,” says Aljazairli. “We are people. We are doctors, engineers … When someone loses their home, people think they are nothing, that they have no future. But no, we are just people. We are all the same.”