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Badminton: War-torn Syria to Tokyo Olympics: Refugee shuttler Aram Mahmoud's journey

Fleeing the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, Aram Mahmoud is set to live his dream by being the first refugee shuttler at the Tokyo Olympics, as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Aram Mahmoud

Syrian-born Aram Mahmoud is a part of the Olympic Refugee Team, Image Credit: Rens Hooyenga


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 20 July 2021 4:22 AM GMT

Perhaps few experiences compare to the harrowing feeling of being helplessly displaced from a homeland. Syrian-born badminton player Aram Mahmoud's story is one such bittersweet tale fraught with political crisis, war and alienation from his family. Selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to be a part of the IOC Olympic Refugee Team for the Tokyo Olympics, the current World No. 172, Aram Mahmoud will now become the first Olympian to play badminton under the Olympic flag at the upcoming Games.

Having fled his homeland - Syria, in 2015 owing to political and religious unrest, Aram Mahmoud's flight to Netherlands and achieving asylum status as a refugee might emanate from a history of pain but the stars have looked up for the budding 23-year-old badminton player. Currently training in Denmark to hone and sharpen his badminton skills before sailing for the Tokyo Olympics - Aram Mahmoud's story is deeply inspiring.

Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, marching right behind Greece on July 23rd, will be the 29-member strong IOC Olympic Refugee Team who will compete independently under the Olympic flag. A massive leap from 2016 Rio Olympics' inaugural 10-member contingent, the Olympic Refugee Team at the Tokyo Olympics will see players from 11 countries -Syria, Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Iraq, compete in as many as 12 sports.

Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee President was highly in favour of the inclusion of refugee athletes and wrote, "The refugee athletes...show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talents, skills and the strength of the human spirit."

Aram Mahmoud - in search of a home to house his dreams

Just like dreams do not pause to look at borders, before invading, Aram Mahmoud's eyes also brimmed with the hopes of playing for his country at the Olympics as a rising badminton player in Damascus, Syria. However, the journey wasn't supposed to be so kind as Syria became the hotbed of political and religious conflict since 2011 and dreams, even though they are said to be bulletproof, also cowered for shelter.

"The Syrian Civil War is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with over a quarter million killed, roughly the same number wounded or missing, and half of Syria's 22 million population displaced from their homes." - Andrew Tabler, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

In a country crippled by war, Aram Mahmoud was left with no option but to escape the clutches of horror to help safekeep his dream. Barely 18, Aram Mahmoud left Syria and his family behind in order to resuscitate his dream of playing badminton at the Olympics by heading to the Netherlands in 2015.

Badminton as a way to forge new bonds in a new country

Upon his arrival in the European country, the 2-time Syrian Men's Championship and Arab Youth Championships winner Aram Mahmoud was left feeling uneasy initially - the change in language, the difference in culture, all of it left Mahmoud feeling particularly foreign. In fact, his legal status in a new State left him in a perplexed situation - Aram Mahmoud wasn't able to compete internationally in badminton from 2014-2018.

However, his luck was soon set to change as Aram Mahmoud began using his skills with the racquet to forge new friendships in the foreign country. Badminton became the connecting point and over rallies and smashes, Mahmoud was able to find a place for himself in the Netherlands.

"Badminton allowed me to get help in my integration in the Netherlands. The challenge was great but I have used badminton as a tool to make friends. In the first months I moved so many times from one village to another village. Things changed when people helped me by finding a club where I could play badminton," Aram Mahmoud said in an interview with the Olympics website.

A former World No. 161, Aram Mahmoud fetched the attention of the IOC by securing the Refugee Athlete Support programme scholarship in 2019. This feat gave new life to his dreams and is the driving force behind Mahmoud's nearing debut at the Tokyo Olympics.

"All people have ambitions and dreams. As an athlete, my dream is to compete one day in the Olympics. This scholarship means I can still pursue this dream," Aram Mahmoud posted on social media.

Aram Mahmoud - a beacon of hope for all refugee athletes

Over the last three years, Mahmoud's rise has been remarkable. Scaling up the rankings from a lowly World No. 937 in 2018, Mahmoud sits perched as the World No. 172 now and has his eyes fixed on the Tokyo Olympics. Escaping a war-torn Syria, leaving his family behind and not even meeting them for the last six years, Mahmoud's ticket to the Olympics has come at the cost of a lot of sacrifices.

"They (refugee athletes) are an exceptional group of people who inspire the world... Surviving war, persecution and the anxiety of exile already makes them extraordinary people, but the fact that they now also excel as athletes on the world stage fills me with immense pride," Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.

The 23-year-old badminton star has also created quite a few ripples on the BWF circuit - Aram Mahmoud got back to his winning ways after breezing through the qualifying rounds in Estonia, Sweden and Austria in 2019 before finding himself in the quarters of the Portuguese International. Mahmoud's triumphant moment arrived soon after as he lifted the title of the Latvian International and also made it to the semi-final stages of the Lithuanian International.

Having qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, Mahmoud's chief concern is to now play for all the refugees in the world. Still nursing the pangs of not having met his family for six years, Mahmoud also dreams of being reunited with them.

"Now I'm playing not only for my country, but for refugees all around the world," said Mahmoud. "There are a lot of people who need motivation, that they can do what they don't expect to do. We can achieve something; we are not just people who went out of our country; we also can do things in other countries. If we have a dream we can achieve it but we have to work hard for it. The last few years I worked hard to get this opportunity, and for every athlete the Olympics is a big dream. I'm happy to be there and very happy to be representing the refugee team," Mahmoud mentioned in an interview with the official BWF website for the Tokyo Olympics.

More than anything, it's incredibly wonderful to see sports aiding in rehabilitation especially for refugees who emerge from a traumatic past. To see sports acting as a balm in healing wounds and giving refugee athletes the power to overcome their pain and to dream again, is perhaps one of the greatest victories we could have possibly wished for.

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