GRAZ, March 21, 2017 - More than six years of war in Syria has destroyed so much. It has killed more than 400,000 people and forced 11m to flee. Still, it has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Syrian Special Olympics team.



Delegation president Tariff Kutrache explained the troubles they have overcome but also the happiness surrounding him.


He said: "To be honest our athletes and I are very happy that we got a chance to participate in the Special Olympics in Austria. Even with all the hard times and difficulties we went through to come here."


The war has affected everyone in Syria. Danger is everywhere but, for people with intellectual disabilities, even more of a threat. They do not know exactly what is happening and in many cases, are the first to meet with misfortune.


Most of Syria's athletes participating in this year's Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria have already been displaced from destroyed homes to safer ground.


In preparations for the Olympics they also had problems with equipment; for example, they did not have skates as this is their first time competing in speedskating.


Kutrache said: "It was challenging for us but the hope and hunger we had to be with whole world here was bigger. We wanted to show that Syrian people are strong."


The delegation features six athletes competing in three different sports; speedskating (Alshaghouri Nour and Baz Ali), cross-country skiing (Houzni Fadi Masoun, Baz Ali and Naser Eddin) and snowshoeing (Skeif Abdullah).


Kutrache added: "We always try to show them the good side of the world, and not the bad side. What sport does is distract them from the war, it inspires them and all the practice they have done for this event made them happy."


Some of the athletes are travelling abroad for the first time in their lives. To travel by plane or by train was a whole new experience they liked. Austria offered them a warm welcome and the Austrians made them feel no strangers here.


"Our athletes are having a most wonderful experience in Austria," said Kutrache. "They see the big difference between being here and in Syria but they will always be proud of their country no matter the situation."


The future of Syria is unknown, as Kutrache said: "Only God knows what will happen next. It is really hard to know about future of Syria, not the next week, not the next day, but the next hour. It really makes it difficult for us, we always have to be ready for everything and it makes our life tough."


Over the last six years the delegation has lost contact with many of its past Special Olympic athletes. Certain areas they cannot enter where athletes are unable to do what they like the most.


Kutrache added: "These people have suffered the most as they are informed last if something bad happens . . . We are reconnecting with the whole of Syria and until now we have done a very good job."


The Special Olympics have given Syria's athletes space to think positively and, for a short time, to be far away from war. They can sleep and eat peacefully, the whole world is supporting them and taking care of them.


Kutrache concluded: "We have great belief in the people surrounding us. From Austria, from USA, from Europe, human beings from everywhere are going to win. War will never win, OK, it might cause damage, but never can war be the end of our lives."


Tomislav Cvitan, AIPS Young Reporter, Croatia