Swimwatch readers will know that Eyad has decided to compete in the Mare Nostrum swim series. Any travel for a Syrian refugee is difficult. Even though Eyad is now a New Zealand permanent resident and has a New Zealand Travel Document, a visa is required for everything. And these are not just any old visas.

Eyad is the most peace-loving guy. He’s as Kiwi as all can be. For example, he wandered into the pool café yesterday, fully dressed for work at his Queen St. engineering company, except he had bare feet. My mother and his mother would have had something to say about that.

But even Eyad is required to produce a mountain of paperwork. I constantly hear New Zealanders complain about needing a Covid test before an international flight. They should try living in a Syrian’s shoes for a day. I had no idea how lucky we are – have a Covid test, fill out a departure form and away we go to just about anywhere in the world. When I began helping Eyad with his Mare Nostrum journey, I couldn’t believe the difficulties he thinks of as normal.

But then Eyad got some good news – some really good news. He got an email from FINA. This is what it said.

Subject: Refugee Team in FINA World Championships Budapest 2022

 Dear Mohamed,

 We are very happy to be able to welcome you at the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest upcoming June!

 I would like to set up an online meeting to discuss your participation.

 Should you need any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 Kind regards,

And so, just like that Eyad’s trip now includes competing at the World Championships in Budapest. Four cities: Monaco, Barcelona, Canet and Budapest. Now, that must be the swim trip of a lifetime. If Eyad can add Paris to that list in a couple of years, what more is there to do? The difficulty of getting there maybe extreme, but the reward is turning out to be amazing.

There may be some who question whether refugees should benefit by having a “special” entry to World Championship and Olympic competition. Believe me, there is nothing special about a refugee’s sporting life. Just call yourself Syrian and go live in the Middle East for a few months. You will see how special your life is then. I’ve been with Eyad when he was refused entry into a public swimming pool because of his nationality. I’ve been in a car with him when he was refused a park close to a pool for the same reason. I’ve seen coaches refuse to coach him because he is Syrian.  Try ringing the American Embassy, tell them you are Syrian and would like to visit Mississippi. See how special that phone call ends up.

The IOC, NZOC and now FINA’s efforts to address the discrimination and hurt caused to some deserves nothing but praise. I have always thought Immigration New Zealand’s approach to refugees was compassionate and thoughtful. Certainly, in Eyad’s case, he has been treated with care and respect. Well, you can add the Spanish Embassy in Wellington to the helpful list. And Swimming New Zealand, don’t forget them. They say you can judge someone by their actions. The effort SNZ has made to help Eyad has been above and beyond. If you are a parent reading this post, be content – your son or daughter is in a new organisation that cares. The sport of swimming in New Zealand is in a good place.

Mare Nostrum meets are always competitive. I have a feeling this year will be especially tough. I am sure many very good swimmers will be using Mare Nostrum for the same reason as Eyad – as warm-up meets for the World Championships. The three meets are perfectly placed to provide fast swimming before arriving in Budapest.

International competition has always improved a swimmer’s performance. I remember Brett Naylor telling Jane Copland at a Sydney World Cup that she was a “disgrace to New Zealand” because she was too slow. She was only 15 and was swimming for the experience. Naylor never apologised for that insult not even when Jane won open national championships, broke New Zealand open records, represented New Zealand and made the NCAA championship finals. Her career was, in part, built on her early exposure to international swimming.  

I am sure Eyad will find the same thing. This trip will be another four steps up the ladder. Four steps that have been well earned. I wish him well.

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