Anas Al Khalifa fled the war in Syria and lived in camps before reaching Germany. In 2018, he suffered a spinal cord injury in a workplace accident. He is one of six members of the Refugee Paralympic Team at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
He was born in Hama, Syria in 1993 and had a fairly normal childhood. Everything changed for his family when the war started in 2011 and they were all separated. His only brother, who he was very close to and who worked with the police, left his job so he would not have to pick sides and fight in the war, and went to one camp for internally displaced people.
Al Khalifa, who was just a teenager at the time, went to another camp nearby only 3km from the border with Turkey.
“The camps were the only places that were free of any weapons or fighting. It was the only place that we really felt safe,” Al Khalifa said through a translator.
Al Khalifa thought he would be there for a couple of months. He ended up living in that camp two years. Eventually, he decided to flee to Turkey.
Even though it was only a few kilometres away, it felt a world away.
After several attempts, he finally made it to Turkey in 2014, sleeping in a mosque the first night. Al Khalifa found odd jobs as a porter, carrying fruits and vegetables. He lived in Turkey for one year, keeping in close contact with his brother along with his parents.
“The plan was for either me or my brother to go to Germany to build a better future and to help support the family.”
His brother decided he wanted to stay in Syria to be with his parents. Al Khalifa set out on the risky journey many refugees know all too well. It would take him from Turkey to Greece and then onto Germany. But the trip itself was a nightmare that he was not sure he would survive.
“I call it the journey of death because it was full of so much risk along the way.”
Over the course of a month he will not ever forget, he hitchhiked, jumped onto trains, hid outside in the woods, and even got robbed along the way.
New life in Germany
In August 2015, he arrived in Germany, unable to speak German but with high hopes for the future. His new life he thought was just beginning – or so it seemed.
In Germany, his dream was to continue his studies, become a mechanic and earn enough money to help the family. As he was settling in the first year, he could not work while he waited for the proper documentation.
The next year, he landed a job helping to install solar panels on roofs. He did that for close to two years. Any money left over at the end of the month, he sent back to his family.
One rainy day on 7 December 2018, he was working on a two storey building when he slipped and fell down to the ground.
“I don’t really remember much because I lost consciousness for four or five days. They called an ambulance and a helicopter to rush me to hospital.”
Al Khalifa landed on his back and suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury, which meant he had limited movement or sensation in his lower limbs. He also broke his left leg in multiple places. He was in one hospital for a month and then transferred to another where he had to undergo several surgeries and rehabilitation for a year and a half.
To be able to communicate with the medical staff, he learned German on his phone from his hospital bed.
“Things were very dark for me at that time. To wake up and know that you won’t be able to walk again. Everything crosses your mind. Even the worst things possible. Everything just turned upside down.”
The family’s dream to have him start a new life in Germany seemed over. He only told his parents he broke his leg. He did not divulge the full extent of the injuries so that they would not worry. The only one he told was his brother.
Al Khalifa fell in love with paracanoeing when he was introduced to it by a friend of his physiotherapist. He threw himself into the sport. His coach, former Bulgarian champion Ognyana Dusheva, was impressed when he first fell into the icy-cold water and vowed to return the next day to train again.
Al Khalifa’s parents called in December to deliver some grave news: His brother had been killed in a skirmish despite desperately trying to avoid the war. Al Khalifa tried to quit paracanoe when he was told. He would have done, too, had it not been for Dusheva’s insistence. It was then that he told his parents about his injury, that he again turned his focus to the Paralympic Games, and that he refuelled his motivations in the face of grief.
“My message to the world and to myself is that as long as you have a dream you have to fight for the result,” he says. “You can do it as long as you believe in yourself.”