Swimming Against the Odds

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As athletes compete for Gold in the Tokyo Paralympics, Olympic hopefuls including disabled swimmer Alireza in Turkey, watch on. Inspired and motivated, he waits for his turn to join the Olympic games.

Alireza started swimming when he was 15 years old after he saw a disabled Chinese swimmer on TV for the first time. “He impressed and motivated me the moment I saw him. I thought if he can make it with his disability, I can make it too and achieve even more success than him.”

“No one wants to talk with a person in a wheelchair. When I lost my muscles, I realized I lost my connection to society too,” said Alireza, who is originally from Iran but has been living in Turkey since 2019. His genetic disability causes bone and muscle atrophy, leaving him unable to walk and use his hands. He also has difficulty speaking and eating.

Despite his disability, and against all odds, Alireza still became a competitive swimmer and joined Iran’s National Disabled Swimming Team in 2009.

Alireza grew up with his parents and his siblings with the same genetic disorder in the city of Hamedan, Iran. His parents took care of them even under financial constraints. They supported him and took him to the swimming pool so Alireza could pursue his dream. 

As he grew up, Alireza’s disability got worse over time. He used to be able to walk with the help of walking sticks, but now he can only use one arm and is confined to a wheelchair. He noticed that people changed their attitude towards him too. Many people discouraged him, even his parents were sometimes hopeless and could not help him with transportation or basic needs. He felt alone and desperate. “Life is so limited for persons with disabilities in Iran,” he said. But swimming is what brought him to life and became his passion. 

These challenges did not make him lose hope. “I love swimming because it is the only time when I don’t feel my disability. There are no disabilities or obstacles in the water.” After joining the Disabled National Swimming Team, he participated in many national and international competitions where he won 15 medals.

“My motivation was so high that I realized it was the beginning of my way to the Olympics. Participating in the Olympics means the world to me even if I don’t win a medal.” Alireza was invited to the Paralympics in 2016 and 2018, where he even broke a record during the preselection process. Unfortunately, he did not have the opportunity to perform at the Paralympic games due to political reasons and the risk of being withdrawn and banned from sports for his entire life. “I felt so worthless as if I hadn’t even existed. I had worked so hard for this dream for 20 years. What would I do if I cannot swim?”

Facing many obstacles to reaching his dream in Iran, he decided to move to Turkey. When he migrated to Turkey, IOM, Trakya University and the Edirne Provincial Directorate of Migration Management supported him as he settled into life in Turkey. “I will never forget the help and support that I received. People connected me to Turkey because they are really welcoming and thoughtful. I believe, this place has become my home and I belong here.”

Alireza quickly became part of the Turkish community and raised awareness of disabled people and their struggles. Trakya University increased its efforts to create an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities by building special access roads and paths.

“Every person has intelligence and the ability to do whatever they want no matter if they are migrants or disabled. The key thing is to believe in yourself and take a step to reach your goals.”

Alireza’s journey to the Olympics is not finished yet. He is committed to making his dream come true and continues to train to compete at the Olympics one day. “What I truly want is to encourage everyone to face their challenges. I want people to say: 'If Alireza could achieve it with his disability, then so can I!'" 

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IOM Turkey works closely with local and national institutions to provide medical assistance, accommodation, food, and other basic services to the most vulnerable migrants. IOM Turkey supported Alireza with legal advice, consulting services and supported him in getting asylum through cooperation with national partners. IOM and local NGOs continue to help him finalize the legal process so that he could participate in the Paralympics games. 

By: Melis Güner / IOM 2021 

Photo Credit: Burak Çerci / IOM 2021