Syrian Amir Al-Awad is grateful to wrestling. Even at his lowest moments, when grappling on a mat was far from his thoughts, the sport has remained ingrained inside.
Wrestling makes you face challenges and as a wrestler I was taught to be resilient and confront life, no matter what, explained Al-Awad, whose life was sent spinning by the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011. “If I am thrown to the ground or hit the bottom I have to come up and start afresh.”
Wrestling-obsessed since he was nine years old, the former Asian and Arab champion has come to embody this ethos. After his house was destroyed, Al-Awad and his family became internally displaced as war raged around them. The former professional sportsman was routinely arrested. Both warring sides were suspicious of his determination not to declare an allegiance. Finally, when once again in jail and unable to look after his then-pregnant wife, Al-Awad decided they had to leave.
His wife made it to Egypt and eventually so too did Al-Awad. Abandoning a plan to try to reach Europe, the couple began the arduous task of building a new life as legal refugees. But, despite three years spent focusing on finding a job and caring for his young family, wrestling found its way back in.
“It became a win-win situation,” said the 18-time national champion.
Using sports as a vehicle to give back to society and give back to the refugees made me feel good about myself. It has been a way to confront my own fears and disappointments about the war.
Energised by the thought of sharing his passion with the disparate refugee community in Alexandria, Egypt, Al-Awad and friends founded what has become the Syrian Sports Academy. Funded by the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and other organisations, the 30-square-metre training hall provides scores of young refugees with a sporting home and, often, a sense of identity.
“The main purpose was to give the kids some training and physical activity and try to distract their minds from what had happened in their countries – using sports as a means to rehabilitate,” Al-Awad explained.
The academy provides kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, and gymnastics training, as well as wrestling, with 20-plus children attending most daily sessions. Al-Awad also runs self-defence classes for women, designed to “rebuild self-confidence”, while his wife, a former ballerina, offers Zumba sessions.
For the rock-like 36-year-old, the academy has returned to him much of what war took away.
“When I see these kids doing something with their lives, being distracted from the atrocities of the war, I believe that sport has the power to elevate and give purpose in life,” he said. “Giving back to society is actually giving back to myself.”
It has also been the vehicle to return him towards wrestling’s elite. Despite having no intention at first of competing again, Al-Awad found the itch too difficult to ignore. Now he trains relentlessly either side of his full-time job as a chef and his part-time work as a coach.
As his strength and power returned, Al-Awad found his mind turning towards an extraordinary dream.
“I had an idea about the refugee team from the Rio  Olympic Games and ever since I heard about it I tried to be a part of it, to find a contact for the IOC so I could be a part of this team,” he said. “It took a lot of time to find the right contacts.”
But find them he did and in September 2019 he was announced as one of 42 IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders. This gave him access to training grants and propelled him up the ladder towards a coveted spot in the Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Progress has not been easy but in February of this year he made it to the African Championships in Algiers, Algeria.
“It was like a dream, to be back on the international stage, competing with fellow athletes. It gave me hope that I am on the right track,” he said. “I want to be a role model for the entire community. If I was on the team it would give a message to the other refugees in my situation that anything can happen. Even if it is difficult at the moment, maybe one day it will clear.”
The children he coaches are desperately willing Al-Awad on. They have even handmade him an inspirational flag featuring their handprints. If he does make it to the next Olympic Games, it is them he really wants to embolden.