Iranian Greco-roman wrestler Jamal Valizadeh is about to come true. He's set to compete in the Paris Olympics under the Refugee Team's flag. GETTY IMAGES

Sixteen hours of work a day for a meagre salary in Turkiye, swimming across the Mediterranean... and 10 years after that ordeal, the Olympic Games in Paris. For refugee wrestler Jamal Valizadeh, a dream is about to come true.

At a university training centre in Saarbrucken, Germany, very close to the French border, the athlete with a two-day beard and black-framed glasses cannot hide his joy. His Olympic dream, which he had to give up so many times after fleeing his country, is finally coming true after he qualified for the Greco-Roman wrestling events in the Refugee Olympic Team

Valizadeh, who was forced to leave his country, Iran, when he was a student and a champion in Greco-Roman wrestling, admits at 33 that he has not had a journey comparable to that of other athletes.

Although he does not wish to elaborate during his interview with Agence France-Presse on the reasons for his departure from Iran, Valizadeh recalls his complicated journey to the French capital, without contact with his family, nor being able to see them for a decade, until this year.

"A lot of suffering"

Valizadeh remembers having "suffered a lot". His first stop was Turkiye, where he “worked 16 hours a day, earning only 1,000 dollars after six months. (The employers) gave me $300 a month and I had to buy my own food. And since he did not have proper papers, they abused me, they did not respect me, they spoke badly to me." 

Valizadeh recalled that "it was really hard", but he needed that money to continue his journey. In the middle of winter, while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat, the craft began to take on water. He was one of those who abandoned it, giving priority to women and children, and reached the coast by swimming a few hundred metres away. He arrived in France in 2016 and first went to Calais. 

"They told me that there were many people like me there and it would be easier to get the papers." But fate put the fighter to the test. And he fought, without money, "to save himself, to stay alive," he recalls emotionally. In France, where he applied for political refugee status, which was granted to him a few months later, Jamal Valizadeh is convinced that he wants to continue fighting and be able to compete one day at an international level.

For him, fighting is a family affair. As a young man, he was the only boy in the family, among his 34 cousins, who practised gymnastics and handball, but not wrestling. Although he wrestled with them for fun every evening, he would not take the sport seriously until later, and impressed his coach by "defeating the regional champion."

'Finishing the job' 

Valizadeh was crowned champion of Iran in the under 55kg category for three consecutive years, until 2013. Though when he fled the country, where he was under threat, he lost "the hope of fighting at international level.” However, with his refugee status, Valizadeh regained the hope that he had gradually lost in the French town of Ogy-Montoy-Flanville.

All of this athlete's life decisions were guided by this discipline. In the same wrestling gyms he learned to speak French. "I didn't spend a single hour in French classes," he smiles. Now, his goal is "not just to be a tourist at the Olympic Games," but "to get a medal."

In Saarbrucken, where he trains, the Iranian is supported by coaches and sponsors. Proud to have qualified for the Paris Games alongside 35 refugee athletes, he says he has "one small thing left to do to finish the job: to get a medal."