(Idlib) Famous Syrian athlete and former boxing champion Muwafaq al-Zouhouri (45) had no idea he would become the victim of the regime’s betrayal. An air strike on October 23, 2012 shattered his dreams of an athletic future. He suffered a crippling injury that nearly cost him his life.
Zouhouri received the news of his disability while lying on the bed in Al-Qusayr field hospital. His left foot bone was crushed, and the veins were severed, leading to poor perfusion. Only 40% of blood circulation reached his foot.
“When the doctor came into my room, I thought he was going to reassure me about my health. I did not imagine he would tell me about the injury that would lead me to suffer for the next four years," he said. "What hurt me the most was having to let go of my athletic dream."
Zouhouri had grown up in the city of Al-Qusayr, Homs, in a family of eight. Since his childhood, he loved sports and was among the top junior athletes in his city. At age 18, he entered the boxing ring and excelled there too. In 1996, Zouhouri moved to Cyprus to continue his sporting career. He returned to Syria on March 2, 2010, just a year before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
He was near a sports club in Homs suburbs in Al-Qusayr when the Syrian war plane struck. “I was not the only one who was injured that day," he noted. "Several other people died or were wounded."
A year-long treatment succeeded in getting him up on his feet again, but he still needed another three years of physiotherapy. The athlete described the journey from injury to recovery as the hardest chapter of his life.
Zouhouri moved between several hospitals, including Al-Qusayr field hospital, to which he was admitted to on the day of the strike. The field hospital ambulance transported him to Yabroud National Hospital on October 24, 2012, where he stayed for five days. He was then shuttled with the help of smugglers to Chtaura Hospital in Lebanon. The journey lasted ten hours on foot. His condition was critical, and Syrian field hospitals could not offer the care he needed due to lack of staff and equipment. Besides, they constantly feared regime shelling, which still targeted field hospitals.
Zouhouri feared Hezbollah fighters during his convalescence in Lebanon because they were eliminating and abducting wounded Syrian opposition members in the care of Lebanese hospitals. So, he followed his treatment at home under the supervision of specialists, until he could walk again.
“I realized that only the injured person feels his own pain," he told SyriaUntold. "People forget about him. When I could walk again, I devoted my life to helping the wounded and giving them back their confidence. I wanted to focus on this forgotten category, reintegrate it in society, boost its morale and save it from its dark reality and pressure of displacement, migration, oblivion and loss of self-confidence."
In 2014, he became active in the Syrian refugee camps of the Lebanese city of Arsal. He organized several sports events, including swimming, marathons, football and boxing competitions. Then, with the help of smugglers, he returned to Syria and settled in Maarrat al-Numan on Aug. 8, 2017. This is where he continues to work as a sports coach.
His activities focus on children, orphans, people with special needs, and the wounded. Through his diverse sports activities, he gave the injured back their confidence by making them feel that injury “is not the end of the world. It is a real challenge to explore life.” Injured people were encouraged to rely on themselves and make a living, and many resumed their normal activities.
Mohammad al-Maari (39) who had lost his foot in an air raid on the city of Maarrat al-Numan, where he was an important car trader, expressed his gratitude for Zouhouri, who taught him that having an injury did not necessarily mean giving up.
Maari told SyriaUntold that Zouhouri encouraged him to stand back on his feet and resume his normal life. Sports sped up Maari's physical recovery, while also lifting his spirits and helping him reintegrate in society.
“I no longer felt the despair that weighed me down, and I was excited about life again. Perhaps it is the sense of competition, or maybe the willpower I saw in the eyes of participants in the activities. I made new friends and built new dreams,” Maari said.
Khaled al-Naseef (33) worked in the national water company before being inured. He described Zouhouri’s activities as a "ray of hope" that brought him back to “the life that Assad had tried to destroy with his fatal weapons and aircraft.”
Naseef’s injury left him with an amputated right foot. Zouhouri helped him open a dessert shop through a personal donor, thus improving his living conditions. He now relies on himself to provide for his family, and he no longer needs to beg organizations for relief baskets.
Khaled al-Noufous (12) thanked Zouhouri for his efforts in helping him by ensuring that a rich trader offered him care, food, medication and school supplies, at a time when he was overlooked by charities and homeless. Noufous is an orphan and is partially paralyzed due to a raid that targeted his school in Idlib countryside. His dreams and childhood were stolen, but he benefitted from Zouhouri’s activities.
Raed al-Ashkar (25) also benefitted from Zouhouri’s activities, as the latter connected people in need to charities and well-off individuals who were ready to help.
This is how Ashkar got a gratuitous prosthesis that helped him move freely, as he could not afford it on his own because it was rare and costly. Zouhouri’s initiative helped Askhar start a new life.
“It is hard to see your hand or foot amputated and to look at your disability without being able to fix it. But, it warms the heart to see people like Zouhouri investing all their financial and moral capacities to help the injured who were deprived of their simplest rights,” he said.
Through the activities he posts on social media, Zouhouri succeeded in turning the attention of many organizations (including Al-Bounyan al-Marsous Organization which offers relief baskets and diesel to the injured) and rich people to these forgotten and marginalized groups. Around 57 limbs were given to people who had lost them in the Syrian war. More than 13 wheelchairs were also provided to tetraplegic individuals, and 127 orphans got sponsors.
Zouhouri has also helped war wounded individuals open more than 40 businesses — ranging from pastry and dessert shops to electronic device repair shop — by providing financial, material and logistical support.
Mohammad al-Asaad (52) is a donor sponsoring several participants in Zouhouri’s activities and offering logistic aid like prostheses, crutches and wheelchairs. He asserted “the need for such activities as they offer many people the chance to help the forgotten and marginalized categories. How would I know about the suffering of these individuals and their need for aid if it weren’t for such activities that allow us to help those affected by the war and deprived of their right to movement?”
He underlined the need for people like Zouhouri to restore the confidence of the wounded and reignite their resolve so that they can overcome their disability and return to life. After all, the circumstances forced them to give in to their injury and isolate themselves. These activities are their only outlet to regain their physical and psychological well-being.
Zouhouri works voluntarily and out of a personal initiative. He is not a member of any relief organization. His activities are humane first and foremost. They aim at improving the fitness of the injured person, taking into consideration the nature of injury. Activities include football, handball and basketball.
“It's so nice to see people face their injuries with determination and challenge," Zouhouri said. "That's what I've always wanted, and now I see it clearly in their eyes.”
Omar al-Dodi (30) who lives in Maarrat al-Numan praised Zouhouri’s initiative.
“It is rare to find people devote all their time and effort to helping the injured and displaced who are in dire need of such initiatives. The woes of war, from poverty and displacement to migration and loss, have preoccupied everyone and left people without anyone giving them hope, except the few philanthropists like Zouhouri,” he said.
Zouhouri was quick to support the Syrian revolution. He joined street demonstrations in 2011 and quickly found himself helping wounded protestors and transporting them to field hospitals.
Armed with modest financial means but high spirits, Zouhouri manages to help war wounded individuals of all ages. Leading by example, he gives them an opportunity to prove their abilities and heal. Thanks to him, they are enthusiastically returning to a somewhat normal life even in the midst of war.