Ahmad Alham (name changed to protect his identity) walked into the local German swim club in Bonn, Germany today to enjoy a quiet evening of swimming for the first time in over three years.
Ahmad had just arrived in Bonn after getting permission from the German authorities to permanently relocate and stay with his aunt and uncle after a perilous three month journey fleeing the civil war and fighting in his devastated home town of Homs, Syria. He stated that the streets where the fruit markets were located were all gone. Totally gone. He said there was nothing but rubble left, buildings had collapsed to the ground.
The fighting broke out over five years earlier when Ahmad was still in high school. He then lived for years under the bombings and ever-threatening death of the Syrian civil war. He didn’t mention it, but a friend said his family had been killed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Ahmad is a college student and is now enrolled in a German integration program for refugees learning both German and English in order to better assimilate into Western European society.
Making a new friend
Thorsten Schulz, one of the coaches walked over to my lane – where I was training- and introduced us. Ahmad was expressionless. Even wary. After a pleasant, short introduction from Thorsten- including inserting the knowledge of my nationality (American)- he seemed a little more at ease. I invited him to jump into my lane. Then, gave him a kickboard, my hand paddles, and pull-buoy to use.
It was then, that I saw it for the first time- a small smile came across his face.
After explaining how he could adjust the straps to suit his personal needs, he responded and appeared to be a genuinely polite and humble young man.
Knowing he could use my equipment as he hung on the lane ropes making the adjustments putting on the hand paddles and tucking the pull-buoy in, made the evening a little better for him. He turned, took a deep breath and pushed off next to the lane rope.
For him, it was finally normalcy again. Back “home” in the pool. For the first time in years he was swimming again. No shells firing. No bombs going off. No threats from anywhere. He was not rejected. He was not told to leave, to not stay in this or that town or country.
For a short time in a long time he was finally home, in a pool with clear blue water, combined with a beautiful spring evening as the orange sunlight danced on the water and reflected on the walls at the swim facility. It was the first cloudless spring day in Bonn.
Although he didn’t mention it, Ahmad was finally feeling at peace again. Emotionally, his wings were beginning to level.
After swimming he stopped after each 25m in the corner of the lane, hanging on the rope and wall as if to take it all in.
It’s a pleasant local swim club run by Torsten Bungart and Sam Zandi. People were smiling and talking on the deck. The children’s five and six-year-old age group swimmers were learning kicking drills one lane over, as he took a deep breath after repeatedly surveying both left and right sides of the pool two or three times before pushing off again…
After an hour workout, sitting on a bench poolside, I asked Ahmad a few questions. He was polite and consented to talk briefly about his journey.
Steve: Tell us about your trip out.
Ahmad: It took 6 to 7 days to leave Homs to reach the Turkish border. We drove and also walked. There was fighting along the way, but I made it. Then, I crossed the border and I was in Turkey for one month.
Steve: How did you cross from Turkey to Greece?
Ahmad: By a small boat. At 3:00 O’clock in the morning we boarded this tiny, small boat in the dark with 45 people. It was over loaded and very crowded. It took three hours to reach the Greek island. We didn’t know where exactly we were going. I don’t remember the island name. I think it is Les Bos. Then, once on the island after a while, the Greek authorities put us on a ferry to Athena (Athens). That was OK. But, I couldn’t stay there. From there I walked to the Greek border with Macedonia. It took many days. I was constantly hungry. There is always hunger along the way.
Steve: And from Macedonia, where did you go from there?
Ahmad: I wanted to go to Germany. I have an aunt and uncle here, so that was my goal. My destination. After many weeks, I finally finished walking through Serbia and then got to the border with Hungary. Then I walked all the way to Budapest. There was constant hunger again. It was raining. It was cold. It was not good.
In Hungary, all my things were stolen. Alles (Everything). My small backpack pffft, (making a small, swift, sweeping gesture with his hand). The little money I had. My passport. My clothes. Everything. It was all gone. It was very difficult situation.
But, once in Budapest, there was an organization that allowed us to get on a train to Germany. But, that was difficult too. We made it to Österreich (Austria) and then the train went over the border into München (Munich) in about two days. We were not allowed to get off the train along the way. Then, in Germany I took the train to Dortmund.
Steve: What happened after you arrived in Dortmund?
Ahmad: I had to stay in the refugee camp (processing center) in Bielefeld for two… three months. I did get to visit my aunt and uncle for two days the first week, but, I had to go back to the refugee center in Bielefeld. After processing there, I was finally allowed to come to Bonn to live with my aunt and uncle. Now, I have a place to stay. It is good. I live not far from here.
Steve: How long have you been swimming?
Ahmad: I’ve been swimming since I was a child, but, with the war I have not been swimming for two or three years. This evening was my first time since leaving Syria and having gone through everything on the journey over the past three months to get here.
Steve: How did it feel getting in the water this evening?
Ahmad: (Laughter). (Slowly and deliberately). It was good… It was good. (Lifting his head up in his own thoughts, staring away into the evening sunlight).
Note- If you would like to assist Ahmad, please contact Swimswam for contact information.
Steven V. Selthoffer is a former U.S. swimmer and swam for U.S. Olympic coach, Dr. James E. Counsilman, head coach at Indiana University. Steve has worked in relief aid around the world in refugee camps in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, led relief aid convoys into Bosnia and delivered aid into Central Asia and other regions. He has also testified on a number of occasions in Washington on issues relating to relief aid, international security and bi-lateral U.S. – German relations.