Basem Sharaf is Syrian. He is 24 years old. In 2012, after a journey across Europe, he settles down in Belgium where he asks for asylum. Following some bad news, he sinks into a form of anorexia. 5 years later, he tells how sport allowed him to face racism and the harshness of Belgian life.
One meter eighty-six, sixty kilos. At 19, looking at me in the mirror of my small Belgian apartment, it was a tiny gringalet I could observe in the mirror. In the eyes of others, I was just a clumsy and solitary adolescent, just like so many other teenagers on this planet. Today, five years later, my body is my greatest strength.
In theory, sport has never been my thing. As a kid in Syria, I spent my time sitting in front of computers: I wanted to become a hacker. And then, anyway, aside from soccer, sport was a hobby for the rich. My parents were petty bourgeois from Kafr Amim, in Northern Syria. They were not destitute, but they were not very keen on giving the fruit of their labours so that their son would get an athlete’s body. At school, I also do not remember having had a teacher who specialized in physical activity. During the official sports hours — about two hours a week — we scattered on all sides, without any common activity to bring us together.
At that time, the child that wasted hours in Internet cafes was not imagining for a second that a few years later he would walk the streets of Brussels. He did not think either he would have to flee his country to escape a terrorist group as well as military service imposed by the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
In 2012, however, I did. I walked for weeks, I crossed borders, I took planes. And I finally arrived in Belgium. My big brother Mohammed had remained in the country. But we were never far from each other, we used to discuss on the phone almost everyday. By him, I was able to follow the news. One morning though, one of my cousins had posted his picture on Facebook. Mohamed was dead. He had been taken away by a bombardment.
This news hurt me from the depths of the hovel I was occupying then, in a big city that did not want me very much. At that time, I could not work because of my asylum seeker status. Consequently, I had nothing to do but to watch my youth fall apart under the weight of mourning and immigration forms. I stopped eating, until I reached anorexia.
Months went by. Eventually, one morning, I threw shorts and sneakers in my backpack and I went to register for the “gym.” It had become necessary to replace the mental evil that gnawed me by an intense physical evil. One way or another, one has to stop thinking.
In the first weeks, the colossi who were training at my side laughed at the sickly young man who strove to work out: “Let it go man, look, you do not have the body for that!” My body was not the only one to suffer mockery: “you speak French like a peasant!”, “Where do you come from with that accent?”
Very quickly though, my body changed dramatically. My prominent bones disappeared under a layer of muscles whom I did not suspect the existence.
In parallel, I started working in a textile warehouse for 4 euros an hour. Around 5 o’clock in the morning, I used to go get a train with my backpack. Walking to the station, I often crossed young people of my age, getting out from night clubs. After a day of work, I was rushing to the gym.
Bench press exercises, abs, push ups: after three or four series, the inhuman working hours I was doing, the degrading wage and the desire to be a young person like the others was disappearing almost entirely.
In this gym which had become my daily life, I started to frequent a few other sportsmen. I met a Portuguese, a Lebanese and a Belgian from Morocco. They were the first friends I had in Belgium and the first people I could say “yes, I am a Syrian, I am an asylum seeker, I am struggling”, without feeling the need to apologize.
Life in Brussels is not a friendly expatriation for people like me. But this new confidence acquired by sport has given me wings. I had no intention of accepting my fate without doing anything. The majority of the Syrians who live in Brussels live in the neighborhoods of Molenbeek or Anderlecht. Tired of suffering what I considered as spatial segregation, I left the cellar that I was occupied then for a tiny studio on Avenue Louise, a rather chic artery in the center of Brussels. I stayed there for three years.
Three years to refine my workouts, three years to build a little life despite my precarious status, and despite the glances of passersby visibly not always at ease with this “big muscular Arab” that I had become.
On 22 March 2016, however, terrorist attacks happened in the Belgian capital I was starting to get along with. On the Internet, hundreds of racist and Islamophobic commentaries started to appear at the foot of press articles. I realized that despite my efforts, with or without a Belgian ID, I would spend my life justifying my presence and being denied jobs because of the odd sound of my name.
I had two choices then: was leaving or going mad. So I managed somehow to acquire a Belgian passport, I bought a plane ticket to Montreal and I went to the airport. It was the Easter holidays, the reception staff were completely overwhelmed. I passed the checks smoothly.
When I boarded, I was hilarious, like a kid who is flying for the first time. My headphones in the ears, I felt the plane taking off. My phone was playing a very accurate song by Witt Laury: “Running From There”.
Translated from French by Chelsea Hawkins and Camille Teste