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Eid Aljazairli is a refugee and aspiring Olympic swimmer
Photograph: David Emery for the Breaking Barriers exhibition ‘Belonging’

Meet the London-based Syrian refugee aiming to swim at the 2020 Olympics

Eid Aljazairli couldn't swim before he came to the UK. Now he has his sights on the Olympics next summer

Written by
Time Out London contributor

‘I am passionate about numbers and I love competition. Before I had to leave Syria, I studied accounting and finance at Damascus University. Coming to the UK was a long and difficult journey. I arrived in Glasgow two-and-a-half years ago on my own, at the age of 23. People in Scotland were very helpful, but the weather was a challenge! The Home Office soon transferred me to England, and after a year-long wait, I received my refugee status and moved to London.

I stayed in a YMCA hostel for many months, surviving on my £5-a-day allowance. I did not speak English when I arrived, so it was a real struggle to try and find a permanent place to live and access the things I needed. I was fortunate to become friends with a lovely English family who invited me to stay with them in their home.

Financial buildings and the rush-hour crowds of the city have always inspired me, and I aim to finish my finance studies by securing a place at King’s College London. I heard about the Breaking Barriers charity through some friends, and I have been working with them to prepare for my IELTS English exam and my university application, while also searching for funding.

But accounting is just one of my dreams. After I came to London, I found some videos of Michael Phelps and his extraordinary journey to becoming the world’s greatest swimmer. His videos transported me to another world, and I challenged myself to become a great swimmer like him.

I couldn’t swim before I came to the UK. In Syria, I had never even been in a pool. But I saved money from my £5 allowance to pay a swimming pool registration fee, even though it meant going to bed hungry some nights. At first, I had to teach myself by observing others and watching videos on the internet. I got so frustrated and angry with my lack of progress, but I didn’t give up. I now have a coach and my days are filled with study and training.

After I began to make progress, my coach sent me to my first ever swimming meet. To my surprise, I brought home four medals and even won one of my races. The medals remind me that I can achieve my dreams: that this is just the beginning, and my aim is to go higher and higher.

Swimming has taught me to be focused and patient, and helped me to deal with the difficult situations I have found myself in. I am now hoping to compete for the Refugee Team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

When things are tough, that is the best time to try something different. I want to tell the world that we are not just a bunch of refugees. We are dreamers, hard-working individuals, human beings like everybody else. Whatever has happened in our past won’t define our future.’

Interview by Marsha Glenn.

Eid’s story and his portrait by David Emery appear in the Breaking Barriers exhibition ‘Belonging’ at Proud Central until Nov 2.

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