Five years since its inception, the Syrian Civil War is being called the deadliest conflict in the 21st century… thus far. More than 450,000 Syrians have been killed, and according to estimates from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, approximately 6.5 million have been displaced.
It’s from the ashes of that hopelessness that make this story of a Syrian refugee named Ali Kassem, 16, so uplifting.
As the National originally reported, Ali is from landlocked Aleppo, a city that has suffered catastrophic damage in the last few years. In 2011, Ali came to Lebanon to visit his father with his mother and siblings. During their trip, though, an older brother who stayed behind was killed, and Ali’s family decided it wasn’t safe to return home.
The family ended up in Jiyeh, a town less than 20 miles south of Beirut along the Mediterranean coast.
It’s there where Ali first saw anyone surfing, and immediately he was hooked. Two years ago, he decided to give it a go, carving a piece of foam he found into the shape of a board and paddling out.
Coincidentally Ali Elamine, a surfing pioneer in Lebanon who actually grew up in Huntington Beach, pulled up to the beach with a friend. They watched young Ali for a few minutes, then decided to call him into shore before he hurt himself.
But as Elamine tells it, after yelling at Ali for his recklessness, the then fourteen-year-old assured Elamine he knew how to surf.
“I gave him a wetsuit, gave him a board and I said, ‘since you know how to surf, I want to see you surf,’” Elamine told the National. “He got up and caught his first wave, rode it straight into the channel. First day. Unassisted. Nobody helped him … now he’s lethal.”
Under the tutelage of Elamine, Ali’s now got a board and wetsuit of his own, and surfing has quickly become an outlet and a refuge in a country where Syrian refugees are often looked down upon. The proprietor of a surf shop and school in Jiyeh, Elamine lets Ali use his equipment and surf as much as he wants, so long as he keeps his grades up. In return, Ali works at the surf shop when he’s not at school or working his other job baking manakeesh.
“When I moved here, I didn’t have friends or anything. I just stayed by myself all the time. But surfing helped me meet people and friends,” said Ali. And while he does express some longing for his home country, surfing has given him new purpose. “Even if the war stopped, I would go back to Syria just to visit. But I would want to stay here because it’s all about the surfing,” he said.