The Syrian refugee Alaa Maso enjoys the chance to compete in the FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi
The Syrian refugee Alaa Maso has had an emotional and extraordinary journey, from hitting duds in his house to taking part in the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi.
The 21-year-old is one of more than 1,100 athletes competing in the global event this week at the Etihad Arena on Yas Island. It’s an opportunity Maso never thought possible when he left war-torn Syria in 2015 to build a better life and continue his swimming ambitions, but he has shown remarkable courage and determination to achieve his goals.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. When I was just 13, two bombs landed on my house, but luckily they didn’t explode, ”said Maso, who represents the FINA refugee team in Abu Dhabi.
“But there got to a point where you have to rethink what you’re going to do,” he said. “You have to be careful about your decisions because even if you leave the house you never know whether you will come back or not. When the war worsened, I had no choice but to leave Syria with my brother Mohammed. “
The couple embarked on a grueling 12-day journey to Europe that included overcrowded boat crossings, buses, trains, and hiking as they joined thousands of Syrians fleeing the country.
Little did Maso suspect that he would be separated from his brother for three days because of the many Syrians fleeing.
“We lost each other a couple of times because so many of us went to the same place,” he said. “I remember running 26 km for seven hours with a group of 300 people and we were all wet. We crossed roads, fields and mountains in very cold and rainy conditions. It was not at all pleasant and it is still one of the worst days of my life. “
He added, “But I haven’t given up hope and although I missed my brother, I knew we would meet someday.”
That moment came on the border between Slovenia and Austria, where the two stuck together and navigated their way through 10 countries including Turkey, Greece and Serbia. You live in Germany now.
“The first few months in Germany were very tough because it was completely different from what I experienced in Syria,” said Maso. “It was a new culture, a new way of life, and I knew I had challenges to face, but I adapted,” he said.
After completing his training, he now speaks German, Dutch and English as well as his mother tongue Arabic, but has never lost his passion for swimming. He joined a local club in Hanover and after a four-year break on the competitive stage, he soon caused a sensation in Germany.
“Swimming is something very special for me. I sacrificed a lot to get where I am and I put a lot of hard work into training to be the best I can be, ”he said.
It was only a matter of time before Maso had his big break on the global stage and it was the greatest of them all as he was part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The event was even more memorable as Mohammed, his brother, also competed in the triathlon for Syria and joined a list of siblings who competed in Olympics. Though neither won a medal, they won the hearts of the whole world when a picture of them hugging at the opening ceremony went viral on social media.
“My brother and I always dreamed of going to the Olympics, but we never thought we’d be there together because we always had Paris 2024 in our sights, so a dream really came true,” said Maso.
“We both had a hard time with all the fighting, it was emotional and we hadn’t seen each other for eight months when he was training in the Netherlands. Seeing hundreds of thousands of people retweet our picture is something we will always remember, ”he added.
For now, Maso is focused on the FINA World Swimming Championships and he hopes his story can inspire the next generation of Arab swimmers.
“It is very special to compete in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “Swimming is not that popular compared to other sports, but I think it will grow quickly and we are already seeing some talented swimmers stepping up. It will be great to see more Arab swimmers winning medals on the global stage in the years to come. “
He added: “Since I haven’t seen my parents since I left, a medal here would make them happy. I miss them very much, but I still keep in touch through video calls. I know that they are proud of what I have achieved so far. “