Lebanon: The Refugee Surfer

Syrian surfer finds refuge on Lebanon’s waves

Ali Kassem had never seen the sea until his family fled to Lebanon. After catching his first wave, he was embraced by the country’s fledgling surf community.

Despite his confidence in the water, 16-year-old Ali could not even swim until a few years ago. Growing up in landlocked Aleppo, Syria’s second city, he fled with his family to Lebanon in 2011. They settled in Jiyeh, an ancient coastal town 28 kilometres south of Beirut.

The area is home to Lebanon’s fledgling surf community. When Ali saw the locals riding the waves, he was mesmerized. He first taught himself how to swim. Then, for months he would perch on a beachside cliff studying each surfer’s technique and signature moves.

“When I surf I forget everything,” Ali says. “Even if I had something on my mind, once I am in the water I forget.”

Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees – a massive number for a small country of at least four million people. Services are overstretched, with many refugees unable to access adequate housing, medical care or education.

Ali considers his family fortunate to live in an apartment. But money is tight. His father, a day laborer, cannot find enough work to support his five children in Lebanon.

Financial troubles led Ali to leave school temporarily. Sometimes he picks up work in the surf shop to help make ends meet, but he plans to resume his studies this summer.

His dream is to compete in a world surfing championship and to travel abroad in search of the best waves. And when the war is over, he hopes to go back to Syria and open a surf school.

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