Qusai: A champion in our midst

Qusai, a discus thrower from Syria, and Kennedy, a discus thrower from the United States, take a break from their training together at Katsika refugee camp. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Qusai, a discus thrower from Syria, and Kennedy, a discus thrower from the United States, take a break from their training together at Katsika refugee camp. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Tonight, audiences around the globe will be watching and celebrating the world’s leading discus throwers at the men’s finals at the Olympics in Rio.

Greece might be thousands of miles removed, but here in the birthplace of the Games, two people from very different backgrounds will be celebrating something significant of their own: the fact that they have had the chance to engage in their passion, discus throwing, together.

The two people are Qusai, a Palestinian Syrian, and Kennedy, from Kansas. They are here at a refugee camp in rural Greece near the northern town of Katsika, where 560 other people are currently residing.

Qusai arrived in spring after deciding with his wife that they could no longer stay in Syria, where there were frequent bombings. One even destroyed his sanctuary: the gym where he and his buddies trained. Meanwhile, Kennedy, a student, arrived in June as a volunteer to teach at the community school on the camp grounds.

There is something else distinct about the pair. Qusai, an athlete from Syria, won the discus and shotput championships in Aleppo in 2012. Kennedy, a rising senior, competes in shotput, discus and hammer at Princeton University, where she is a rising junior.

Qusai only speaks a smattering of English, while Kennedy only recently started learning Arabic. But the two have been brought together by a shared language: discus throwing.

Katsika, the name of the camp and its namesake town nearby, means goat. And while there are plenty of those around, there isn’t much else, and certainly no gym to train in. For Qusai, who remembers winning the discus throw at 53 metres and shotput at 16.70 metres, this is a slight problem.

But he wasn’t going to let being in a refugee camp stop him from his training. So Qusai did what Qusai does: He helped build a gym.

A member of the Katsika camp community gets down to work on his training inside a gym built through collaboration between residents and volunteers, including from Lighthouse Relief. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

A member of the Katsika camp community gets down to work on his training inside a gym built through collaboration between residents and volunteers, including from Lighthouse Relief. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Drawing on his experience fashioning gear for workouts and rehabilitation for people with disabilities, he teamed up with a group of volunteers and residents in a collaborative effort to create what they all so wanted: a space to work out, complete with a punching bag, bench press and lifting area. Everyone pitched in. Volunteers, including from Lighthouse Relief, provided funding and support.

It may not be much to look at, but it’s everything Qusai looks forward to, every single day. Two times a day, to be exact. Mondays through Sundays at 10am and 6pm, residents see his giant presence move gracefully and silently through the UNHCR tents, toward the tarp-enveloped structure. “Being able to train gives me energy,” Qusai says. “I feel like I’ve gotten back some of what I lost in Syria.”

Volunteers and residents of Katsika camp get active together. As Qusai says, the gym is a place where everyone is equal, regardless of race, nationality and background. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Volunteers and residents of Katsika camp get active together. As Qusai says, the gym is a place where everyone is equal, regardless of race, nationality and background. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

What’s even better is having a new training buddy. To get a sense of the dynamic between Qusai and Kennedy, one only has to watch. Despite the language barrier, they are in complete tandem when it comes to understanding what the other is doing.

“Qusai likes to focus on dynamic lifts with endurance using lighter weights,” Kennedy says one day as he demonstrates a clean and push and instructs her to follow. She completes the set before following his lead to do bench presses and bent-over rows. Their silent understanding extends to what the other needs. “Really, what he should be using is a heavier shot,” Kennedy says. “His comp weight is 16 pounds, but here all we have is a 15 pounds.”

Qusai, meanwhile, knows what Kennedy needs to do to improve her technique, and has been devising a training regimen for her to work on it.

Qusai and Kennedy take a break to demonstrate the fruits of their joint effort: how strong they've become through each other. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Qusai and Kennedy take a break to demonstrate the fruits of their joint effort: how strong they've become through each other. (Lucas Bertoldo / Lighthouse Relief)

Qusai also draws energy from her. “Kennedy and I are a team. She makes me work harder.”

Qusai is not sure when he will be able to see the inside of a stadium again, but in the moments when he is throwing with a fellow athlete, he feels he’s already won back a little of what he has lost.

What also makes things better is having the gym, which means much more than just workouts and training for him. “It doesn’t matter who you are -- Kurdish, Afghan, Yazidi, Syrian,” Qusai said. “In the gym, everyone is equal.”

Support others like Qusai as they get into shape, and reshape their camp communities. Consider making a donation!

Donate