On his surfboard, he doesn’t feel like a refugee

June 29, 2017

16-year-old Ali Kassem fled Syria for Lebanon, where he’s discovered a passion for surfing — and found peace

Growing up in landlocked Aleppo, Ali Kassem never dreamed he’d be a surfer — but he never dreamed he’d be a refugee either. Everything changed in 2011 when his family was forced to flee Syria and found safety in the coastal town of Jiyeh, Lebanon. Not only did the family find safety, but Ali found his passion: surfing.

A self-taught swimmer, Ali spent months perched on a beachside cliff — mesmerized — intently studying each surfer’s technique. One cold April morning, on a board he carved from a discarded piece of foam he found on the beach, Ali set out to catch his first wave.

Ali El Amine, 34, a Lebanese-American who runs a surfing club and training school in Jiyeh, spotted the younger Ali. “He got halfway out and we called him to come in because he didn’t have a leg rope and the water was still cold,” El Amine recalls. After delivering a lecture on safety, El Amine, impressed with the gutsy teen’s determination, gave him a real board, a wetsuit and lessons.

El Amine treats his protégé — who he calls “Little Ali” — as a family member, sometimes using surfing to reward high marks in school. Low grades mean less time on the surfboard. Being welcomed into a community of people who share his wave-catching passion has made adjusting to life in Lebanon a little easier for Ali.

Lebanon. Syrian surfer finds refuge in the waves

Like millions of Syrian refugees, Ali has endured violence and trauma. Ali’s older brother was killed in Aleppo when the neighborhood bakery where he was buying bread was bombed. The family fled for Lebanon shortly afterward.

Although Ali and his family are lucky to alive and safe in an apartment, his father, a day laborer, struggles to find enough work to support his five children. Now, at age 16, Ali sometimes picks up work in the surf shop to help make ends meet and will resume his studies this summer.

When I surf I forget everything.

But none of that matters when Ali is on his board. “When I surf I forget everything,” he says. “Even if I had something on my mind, once I am in the water I forget.” Along with peace of mind, the sport has given Ali strength, confidence — and a dream. He hopes to compete in a world surfing championship and to travel the world in search of the best waves. When the war is over, he wants to open a surf school in Syria.

Ali and his family are among the more than one million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. For a country with a population of only four million, this is a massive number. The influx of vulnerable women, men and children has stretched resources to the limit, making it difficult to provide housing, medical care and education to every refugee in need. But with generous donor support, UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency — will do everything in its power to improve as many lives as possible.

Here’s how you can help …

Every minute of every day, 20 people like Ali and his family are forced to flee violence and persecution. They and the countries that have welcomed them need you — and the best way you can help is by becoming a USA for UNHCR monthly donor. Make your gift today.