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Meet the two refugees with disabilities set to compete in the 2016 Paralympics

The official 2016 Olympic Games may be over, but global athletic competitions sure aren't. 

The 2016 Paralympics are set to begin on Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro, bringing together athletes with disabilities from around the world to compete in 22 sporting events over 11 days. And, like the Olympics, some athletes in attendance will be competing on behalf of refugee populations from around the globe, marking a first for the Paralympics.

The International Paralympic Committee recently announced the development of an official Team Refugees for the 2016 Paralympic Games. The creation of the team seeks to acknowledge those impacted by ongoing unrest around the world, showing support for the estimated 21.3 million refugees around the globe.

Two athletes with disabilities, both of whom have been displaced by conflict in Syria and Iran, will make up the official team. 

Competing as part of Team Refugees is swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee who will compete in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle swimming events. Hussein qualified for the competition after losing his leg during the war in Syria.

"I want to send a message to refugees in Europe and elsewhere," Al-Hussein says in a video by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). "If they were previously athletes, I ask them to keep practicing sports. Not just sit around — keep practicing sports. Do something with your life. Give anything you have."

Growing up, Al-Hussein used to swim in the Euphrates River, using the city of Deir ez-Zor’s renowned suspension bridge as his starting block and diving board. The bridge was destroyed in 2014 as a result of civil war in the region.

Al-Hussein's father was his swim coach, leading him and several of his 13 siblings to dominate local and national swim contests. But Al-Hussein's swimming career was disrupted when unrest broke out in Syria.

In 2013, Al-Hussein rushed to help a friend who had been hit by bomb, only to be injured himself. He lost part of his right leg, from the mid-calf down. Al-Hussein fled to Turkey to treat his injury, spending the next year teaching himself to walk again. When his recovery was complete, he traveled by inflatable boat to Greece, where he has lived since 2014.

Hussein was only able to begin swimming again in October 2016 after a five-year break. But, even with all the challenges the athlete has endured, his swim times are only a few seconds off from his pre-injury personal best.

“After 22 years of training, my dream finally came true,” Al-Hussein said in a UNHCR release. “Sometimes I go to bed at night and I am so happy, I cry.”

In April, Al-Hussein carried the torch for the 2016 Olympic Games through an Athens refugee camp, a gesture meant to show solidarity with the world’s refugees. It wasn't until later he learned he'd compete in the Paralympics.

Iranian athlete Shahrad Nasajpour, a refugee who lives in the United States after being granted asylum, joins Al-Hussein as a member of the official team. As an athlete living with cerebral palsy, Nasajpour will compete in the discus event at the Rio Paralympics. UNHCR reports that Nasajpour has chosen to keep specifics of his personal story private, focusing on developing his skill ahead of the Games.

The Paralympic Games, which were first created in 1960, follow the Olympic Games in any given Olympic year. The Games bring together athletes with disabilities from countries around the world to compete in the same host country as the Olympic Games.

Around 4,350 athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities from more than 160 countries will travel to Rio to compete in 22 different sports, including swimming, powerlifting, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.

According to The World Bank, around 15 percent of the global population — or about 1 billion people — live with a disability. Of those people, the Women's Refugee Commission estimates about 7.7 million are refugees.

In a release, UNHCR commended the development of Team Refugees, saying it sends an essential message of support to all refugees with disabilities worldwide.

"The Independent Paralympic Team is a symbol of the strength and determination of all refugees with disabilities in overcoming significant odds," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a release. 

The 2016 Paralympic Games will take place in Rio de Janeiro from Sept. 7 through Sept. 18. The event will be streamed live online on the Paralympics website.

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