"They come in these little dinghies, and when we receive them they get scared because they think we’re the police or some authority...” - Azad Al-Barazi
Azad Al-Barazi is an Olympian swimmer and an LA County lifeguard. He holds dual citizenship between his parents’ nation, Syria, and the US, where he grew up. Last year, when he came across a slew of headlines that read, “Aleppo is burning!” it hit him somewhere deep. He researched humanitarian aid organizations, found Emergency Response Centre International and Euro Relief, and booked the next flight to Greece.
“I was volunteering to help these refugees and really getting their stories,” he told me. “I was the only Arabic speaker—the other volunteers were mostly Americans and Europeans, so they didn’t have the communication skills that I did. Some of the refugees spoke English, but broken English, just a couple words. With me I was asking them their stories, why they left their country. That really impacted me, finding out the reason why they left Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or northern Africa, just really getting the details.”
It was a perfect use of his skills. Al-Barazi competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics for the Syrian team (he specializes in the 100-meter breaststroke). He lifeguards on what he calls “the Baywatch beat”—between Topanga and Venice in Los Angeles. In Greece, the refugees were entering from Turkey via the Aegean Sea. Al-Barazi did water rescue.
"It was a perfect use of his skills. Al-Barazi competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics for the Syrian team"
“They come in these little dinghies, and when we receive them they get scared because they think we’re the police or some authority, so they jump off these boats. And these life jackets that they buy from Turkey, some of them are fake, they’re stuffed with cardboard. The refugees traveled thousands of miles to find better opportunity and they’re given fake stuff. And they’re overcharged—it costs $6000 to cross from Turkey to Greece. And they’re not even guaranteed to cross. That was mind-blowing to me.”
Al-Barazi played water polo in his youth, but didn’t get serious about competitive swimming until he learned that it could earn him a college scholarship. He graduated from University of Hawaii in 2009. He lives in Venice and trains at USC with the Trojan Swim Club.
“When the water’s running down your body and you’re alone with your thoughts—that’s probably my favorite part of swimming,” he told me. “Especially living in LA, where it’s go, go, go! When you hop in the water everything just flushes out of you. No distraction, no noise, you hear your breath and your heart beating.”
What was it like competing in the Olympics?
“In London in 2012 I was a young kid, it was my first Olympics, and everything was new to me. It was also the beginning of the civil war in Syria. I was an English- and Arabic-speaking athlete, and the only one on my team who’d trained in the States. I got a lot of press and media attention, and it was a lot of pressure. In 2016 I was a little older and wiser, the war had already hit rock bottom, I understood more about myself, more about the sport, more about the whole Olympics vibe. I was wearing Syria on my back to show people that yeah, Syria is still here. Even though I never grew up there, my roots are in Syria. Out of the two Olympics I’d take Rio as a better experience than London.”
He added that it was a surreal experience. But not nearly as surreal as what he saw in Greece.
“A lot of the people I talked to were males from age 17 to 24. Many were in gangs or they were stealing just to help their families, and they get caught, and they get thrown in prison, and they get tortured and then they have to flee. That was the male aspect. The families that I talked to said that their homes had been destroyed, or that the dads didn’t have jobs anymore because of the war. So the common theme for them leaving their countries was war, no food, no electricity, hard to sleep.”
I asked Al-Barazi what was the most striking thing he saw. He described a drowning scene involving three men; two of them middle age, one only sixteen.
“When I pulled out that kid I was doing CPR and the mom was there screaming and yelling, telling them, ‘He’s not dead! He’s not dead!’ That’s what shook me. Just the overall movement of these refugees and how people are getting treated in these camps and the UN is not really doing much—it’s just tragic, it’s very heartbreaking. I did not want to leave. I really wanted to stay there and help out as much as I could.”