Palestinian swimmer hopes to lift spirits of Gazans at Paris

Published June 15, 2024
DUBAI: Palestinian Olympic hopeful Yazan Al Bawwab in action during a practice session.—Reuters
DUBAI: Palestinian Olympic hopeful Yazan Al Bawwab in action during a practice session.—Reuters

DUBAI: Palestinian swimmer Yazan Al Bawwab, who is training for the 2024 Olympic Games, has a mission. He wants to represent Palestinians suffering from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza by making a splash on the international stage.

These Olympics, which kick off in Paris on July 26, are perhaps more important than the last games in 2021 when Bawwab competed in Tokyo, he said.

“We, as Palestinian players, are here to raise the flag and show people that we are here, and even if we face difficulties, we will be there and represent the Palestinian people,” he said.

The 2.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza need all the help they can get as they endure dire conditions. The armed conflict started when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostage, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s armed forces responded with air and artillery strikes that have killed more than 37,000 people and reduced much of the Gaza Strip to rubble.

Bawwab, 24, who was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian refugees, is chasing a dream that is not his alone.

“My father’s dream was to learn how to swim and become a swimmer,” Al Bawwab told Reuters in Dubai, where he conducts his workouts and runs a furniture factory.

But his father, Rashad Al Bawwab, who left Palestinian territory when he was 18, was not able to realize that dream.

“I wanted Yazan to enter swimming, because I loved swimming and it’s a beautiful sport,” the senior Al Bawwab said.

His father said the upcoming games in Paris are an opportunity for his son to help the Palestinian cause.

“But what’s more important is that he represents an oppressed people, whose rights are repressed,” Rashad said.

Aside from the near constant bombardments, Palestinians in Gaza are suffering a humanitarian crisis, with severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Many of their homes have been destroyed.

Al Bawwab was born and raised outside of the Palestinian territories. But he says: “I remain Palestinian, Palestine is in my heart and all my thoughts.”

In Dubai, Al Bawwab trains by himself and with retired Palestinian Olympic swimmer Ahmed Gebrel, who represented Palestine at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Gebrel says: “I’m confident that he’s at the top level and will represent us in the best way.”

Al Bawwab will travel to an Olympic training camp in the Netherlands next week and then onto France. Ahead of the competition, his focus will be on three things — training, eating, and sleeping.

“Inshallah [God willing] well win something, and make the country and the people proud,” he says.

“I want to show people that Palestinians are strong. If we’re given an opportunity, we’ll take it.”

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2024

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