BERGEN, Norway (Reuters) - Three years after fleeing his home in war-torn Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Wais was living his dream on Wednesday as he competed in the individual time trial at the cycling world championships in Bergen, Norway.
The 26-year-old was cheered on by local residents on the city centre streets, including 22-year-old Haya who clutched a Syrian flag drawn on a simple piece of paper as she waited for the competition to come by.
Wais, who has a job at a local supermarket in Switzerland where he now resides, was a student in Damascus when the war began in 2012, but continued to train until two years later the unrest and violence made it impossible.
By that time, his family had fled Aleppo for neighbouring Turkey. Wais left in July 2014, first by car to Beirut and then by ship to Turkey where he was reunited with his family.
After that, he took a ship from Istanbul to Athens, then flew on to Geneva on an EasyJet flight. At first, he lived in Lausanne with a fellow Syrian, after which he registered as a refugee and was sent to the German-speaking canton of Schwyz.
With time on his hands, he climbed back onto his bicycle for long tours around the mountainous region where he sought out contact with other riders.
The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst in a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias last December.
The 26-year-old Wais had no chance in Wednesday’s time trial, but the pain he experienced in the brutal final climb is all relative given the situation in Syria.
“Absolutely (it) puts things in into perspective,” Wais told Reuters before warming up on the rollers inside the world championships’ media centre.
“It was hard but I’m an athlete and athletes can do a lot of hard things.
“But at the end of the day here we all have to do the same thing, whether you’re from China or South America. We’re all the same,” added Wais, who gets to races by public transport all over the country, from the western Jura region on the French border to Emmental, deep in central Switzerland.
In Bergen, Wais is reunited with his former Syria national team colleague Nazir Jaser, 28.
With junior rider Mohamed Rayes and his father Amin, the team manager, they all live in a rented house because “hotels are too expensive”. They also do not benefit from the support of a big support staff like most of the other teams.
“Ahmad lives in Switzerland, my son and I live in the Netherlands and Nazer lives in Germany. We’re like a big European family now,” Rayes told Reuters.
“We are all from Aleppo. We had to leave because there was no electricity, no water, no money, no work. I had to come to Europe because I wanted my son to train and in Syria the roads were closed because of the bombings.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot, additional reporting by John Miller in Zurich; Editing by Christian Radnedge