Saturday 22 October 2016

Olympic flame stops at UN refugee camp in Athens

Published 26/04/2016 | 22:21

Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al-Hussein receives the Olympic flame from the head of Greece's Olympic committee Spyros Capralos at the Elaionas camp (AP)
Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al-Hussein receives the Olympic flame from the head of Greece's Olympic committee Spyros Capralos at the Elaionas camp (AP)

The Olympic flame has made a symbolic stop at a United Nations-run refugee camp in Athens as part of its 106-day journey from the Games' ancient birthplace in southern Greece to Rio de Janeiro.

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The torch was carried by 27-year-old Syrian refugee Ibrahim Hussein, who ran with a prosthetic limb fitted below his right knee.

"This is such an honour for me. This is for every Syrian and every Arab who has gone through so much," Mr Hussein said afterwards, following chaotic scenes at the camp as he was surrounded by cameramen and refugees using smartphones to take photos and selfies.

"My message to them is not just to stay in refugee camps and to do nothing, but to go after their dream."

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach visited the Athens camp in January to promote a refugee sports programme, aimed at identifying elite competitors who can qualify for a refugee team to compete in the Rio Games.

If they had a home, refugees would belong to the world's 24th most populous nation, just behind Italy.

A team of five to 10 athletes is scheduled to be selected by the IOC in early June. The refugee team will march behind the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony on August 5.

At the camp, Guinean refugee Sekou Sanogo played football with friends and said he was happy to see the torch relay pass through.

"I think it's a good thing," he said. "There are so many journalists here - I hope it will help us."

Greece has been hard hit by the migration crisis that escalated dramatically in 2015.

More than one million people have travelled in dinghies and mostly unsafe boats from Turkey to the Greek islands.

More than 50,000 remain trapped here after European countries imposed strict border controls.

Katerina Kitidi, from the UN refugee agency in Greece, welcomed Mr Bach's initiative.

"With a staggering 60 million people living in displacement around the world, such a strong symbolic gesture aims to show solidarity to those fleeing conflict and persecution," she said.

"Xenophobia and intolerance are growing in many areas, and this initiative creates hope for refugees and awareness on their plight."

The Rio flame was lit in Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Games in southern Greece, last week.

It arrives in Brazil on May 3 and will be relayed across the vast country by about 12,000 torchbearers before the opening ceremony at Rio's Maracana Stadium.

The flame will be handed to Rio Games organisers at a ceremony in Athens on Wednesday.

Press Association

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