European Championships: Alaa Maso To Make Historic Debut With European Refugee Team

Alaa Maso: Photo courtesy: Patrick Wallbaum Fotografie

European Championships: Alaa Maso To Make Historic Debut With European Refugee Team

Alaa Maso was eight and growing up in Aleppo, Syria, when he first dreamed of competing at the Olympics after being inspired by Michael Phelps at Beijing 2008.

Thirteen years later, Maso’s wish became reality when he competed for the IOC Refugee Team in Tokyo.

Next week, the 24-year-old will make history as the first member of the European Refugee Team at the European Aquatics Championships in Belgrade where the pool programme runs from 17-23 June.

But while he is now happily settled in Hannover, Germany, it was only three years after the young Maso was enthralled by Phelps that the world as he knew it was replaced with destruction and devastation as the Syrian Civil War raged.

In October 2015, Alaa and his older brother Mo embarked on a journey across land and sea that eventually saw them settle in the Netherlands before an enforced return to Germany.

Thorpe, Phelps & An Olympic Dream

Maso was introduced to the water by his father at four years old before joining his first club in Aleppo when he was six.

His first sporting hero was Ian Thorpe although it was not the Australian’s five Olympic and 11 world titles that made him stand out to the young Maso.


Ian Thorpe: Photo Courtesy: Adidas

“The thing for me was his pretty cool swimming suits that go all the way up to his hand palms and down to his feet,” Maso said.

“Now that was something very cool to see: I was always used to swimming in briefs and suddenly you see someone swimming with such a suit, and you’d be thinking ‘wow he looks like a ninja warrior or something.’”

Another hero came along in 2008 in the form of Phelps with swimming training abuzz with the American’s exploits in Beijing, where he won eight gold medals.

It lit a flame inside the eight-year-old.

Maso recalls:

“The greatest of all time, Michael Phelps.

“The first time I heard his name was 2008 and we were in practice and everybody was buzzing about the Olympics and how Michael Phelps was able to get eight gold medals throughout Beijing.

“That was the first moment I heard about the Olympics at all. You’re at training and you hear the older guys speaking about the Olympics and how it’s going  and then you go back home and try to rewatch something or have an idea of what they were talking about so you can join the conversation the next day.

“That is how I got to know the Olympics and ever since then it was my biggest dream to go there.”

Leaving Aleppo

A UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a hub of Syrian culture, commerce, industry and history.

However, when Maso was 12 the city became a key battleground in the Syrian Civil War, the start of a brutal four-year deadlock known as the Battle of Aleppo.

In 2013/2014, thousands had fled while those who remained were focused on survival.

Alaa Maso: Photo courtesy: Christian Gold Fotografie

He recalled:

“I really remember 2013/2014 we were locked down and life was only survival mode for eight or nine weeks, continuously.

“You could just go nowhere. For food to a grocery store maybe once a week but all the other days they would have nothing at the supermarket.

“We were able to make it through these hard years eventually arriving to 2015 and we were always hoping the war was going to end soon and the situation was going to get better.”

Despite their hopes for an end to the conflict, the family realised in October that year that “we were only lying to ourselves, and the situation is only getting worse.”

Alaa’s older brother Mo was months away from graduating university after which he would be conscripted to the army.

“So that’s why my father decided overnight – just like, pack your stuff and just leave. It’s not worth it, there’s no cause to fight for, nobody knows who is fighting who or what their fighting goal is.

“It all happened and in a couple of days we were out of Syria.”

Navigating Land, Sea And Bureaucracy

The brothers travelled to Turkey where they boarded a boat built for 11 people with 40 others, watching as another was swept out to sea.

From there they made their way to the Netherlands, arriving in Zandvoort.

The brothers had caught the eye of the media and came to the attention of three-time Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who sent Maso swim equipment.

After two months the pair moved to Alkmaar where the younger brother attended school and joined a swimming club, having been away from the pool expect sporadically between 2011 and 2015.

Alaa Maso: Photo courtesy: Christian Gold Fotografie

The plan had always been to make their home in the Netherlands, where they have family, with their father, mother and sister set to join them under the family reunification programme given Maso was a minor.

However, six months after arriving they were told they would have to go to Germany through which they’d travelled on their way to the Netherlands.

After stopping at an army base in Germany, the brothers had been told to give their fingerprints in order to leave and continue their journey.

That meant their claim for asylum wouldn’t be considered in the Netherlands but instead in the first place they’d registered which would be Germany as a result of giving the fingerprints.

The brothers moved to Osnabrück in western Germany and on to Hannover, but it wasn’t until he had just turned 18 that Maso was granted long-term residency meaning they were no longer eligible for the family reunification process.

An Olympic Dream Fulfilled

In 2018 Maso won some local competitions and in early 2019 started working with coach Emin Guliyev, a two-time Olympian, at W98 Hannover.

The freestyle specialist was awarded an IOC Refugee Athlete scholarship that same year and in June 2021 was selected to the Refugee Team for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Recalling the moment, he said:

“The very first name was ‘Swimming: Alaa Maso’ and that moment I think is going to be one of the top five moments in my life.

“Just to know that all the hard work, all the dedication and the sacrifice didn’t go in vain.”


Michael Phelps: Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

It was a family affair in the Japanese capital with brother Mo representing Syria in the triathlon, the pair embracing at the Opening Ceremony.

Since then, he has competed at three long-course and one short-course World Championships, most recently at Doha in February 2024.

There he met Phelps who had inspired him as a child back in 2008.

It was, he said, a dream come true.

“Suddenly Michael Phelps was there, and we sat in a room for over an hour, talking and he answered all our questions.

“I still can see it sometimes, I look at the photos and think ‘wow, I just sat three metres away from Michael Phelps.”

Standing On The European Stage

Next up are the European Aquatics Championships where he’ll compete in the 50, 100 and 200 free with PBs of 23.00, 51.00 and 1:53.00 respectively.

“I’m really looking forward to it because it’s going to be a very special moment for me,” he beamed.

“It’s the first time I am going to compete at the European Championships with the best swimmers out of Europe.

“It’s going to be fun.”

After that, he’ll switch his attention to Paris 2024 and his second Olympic Games.

While his swimming career has soared, Maso hasn’t seen his family in person since he left Syria in October 2015.

His parents and sister moved to Turkey in 2017 before his father returned to Syria two years later.

Swimming though is a thread that unites them.

“I just keep feeling connected to my family through all the years I haven’t been seeing them since we left Syria.”

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x