Despite the ongoing conflict in Syria, Special Olympics movement continues on in Syria with support from the Syrian Red Crescent and the al-Assad family. Recently, Special Olympics Syria held an event in honor of Mother’s Day, with gifts given to mothers with special needs children. In addition to the al-Assad family and the Syria Red Crescent, the event was supported by the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Sports and the Ministry of Health. Wife of the country’s embattled president, Asma al-Assad serves as Special Olympics Syria’s Honorary President. Local media in Syria and Special Olympics MENA call her one of the organization’s biggest supporters.
Backers of Special Olympics in the country cite its importance in the integration of people with intellectual disabilities in Syrian society. Syria’s Star Times director Ayman Lababidi (Arabic: أيمن لبابيدي ) told Syrian Dam Press that these types of events were particularly important because the war is very draining on children, and in some cases children are specifically targeted. These types of events are good for them as they alleviate some of the pressure on their lives. The Red Crescent included children with motor impairments in their Special Olympics related Mother’s Day events, citing humanitarian reasons for doing so.
Special Olympics have been one of the few places where disability sport in Syria has remained reasonably functional. In July of last year, Syria sent a 21 member strong delegation to the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, with the delegation picking up three gold medals, four silvers and one bronze. All four of the country’s silver medals were won by Mohammad Bitar in the 74 kg weight class in powerlifting. Nasser Eddin picked up a bronze medal in the same sport in the 52 kg weight class. Anwar Samakeh won two gold medals. Sami Marei won the country’s last medal, a gold, in the pool.
On December 3 of last year, Special Olympics Syria hosted a 1 kilometer cycling event on the streets of Mezzeh in Damascus. Following the cycling, a football game took place featuring players with intellectual disabilities. This event was attended by the Syrian Minister of Tourism who was quoted by Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) as saying, “What [Special Olympics] offer government and private institutions for people with special needs in the field of education or health field and in the various fields is a good step to build a strong and cohesive society.” At the same event, SANA quoted the Minister of Administrative Development Dr. Hassan al-Nouri as saying of it, “We are very happy to see all the spectrum of the Syrian society cooperate and interact with so accomplished. We have come to the integration of civil society with the state and popular sports organizations interaction.”
Paralympic sport and Deaflympic sport have mostly gone inactive, with the situation unclear if Syria will have any competitors to send to the Rio Games through standard qualification pathways. There are no Syrian sportspeople ranking in 2016 IPC shooting, athletics or swimming, and there are Syrian sportspeople ranked or classified by IBSA in judo or goalball. The last major competition Syria appears to have been involved with on the Paralympic level was last year’s IPC World Championships in Doha. Syria has never participated in the Deaflympics, and unlike other conflict zones in the region like Yemen and Iraq, does not appear to have a tradition of deaf football. Outside of the sport-for-all model for people with intellectual disabilities, there is little support for elite disability sport or sport the differently-abled.
The conflict in the country is particularly problematic for people with disabilities. Syrian refugees often find themselves in camps with little access to medical care specific to their needs. They end up becoming stuck in places because they know how to operate inside their broken system. Moving away from that puts that at risk for losing support systems. People with disabilities are much less likely to see refugee status than their able-bodied counterparts as a result.