A voice for newcomers in Sweden

The Syrian body-building champion fighting the urge to eat sweets in Sweden

Photo: Private

Published: 30.Jun.2016 12:14 hrs

Being told by friends that he stood no chance in the Swedish national body-building championships only made Alaa Tello more determined to win.

Tello comes from a family of body-builders; he used to train with his siblings before deciding to go professional, and won Syria's body-building contest for his weight category in 2009.

When he arrived in Sweden in 2013, after spending a few months in Turkey, he was determined to continue his passion.

Photo: Private

“When I told my friends here that I wanted to enter Sweden’s national contest, they laughed at me and said I'd never win," he remembers. "They said Swedish body-builders were psychologically and financially settled, so they could easily beat me."

"But this just made me more motivated! It became a challenge.”

Shortly after arriving in Sweden, Tello met a woman called Angela who owned a gym, and when he explained what he was trying to do, she let him train there for free.

Once he had received his residence permit, he moved from Hultsfred to Linköping, where he has been living - and training - ever since. 

'It’s possible to win - even if you are a refugee!”

In November 2014, after just five months in Sweden, Tello achieved second place in Sweden's body-building contest. "I was really happy, it’s not an easy thing to achieve."

But never content with second place, he continued his regime and the following year scooped gold in his weight category in the national championship. As well as being an impressive personal achievement, Tello is also pleased that others have approached him to ask how he managed it and how they could participate themselves.

“I actually inspired others and showed them that it’s possible to win - even if you are a refugee!”

Photo: Private

While many body-builders enlist personal trainers, Tello has prepared for his contests entirely on his own. “It wasn't easy, I had no one to get guidance or motivation from. I suffered a lot," he says.

His routine involves three hours' training each day, including an hour of running first thing each morning, but the 30-year-old says the diet is the toughest part.

"It's great when you start to see and feel the changes on your body, but the diet is also suffering," he says.

Life is sweet - just don't eat it

Tello faces an added challenge, in that he balances his training schedule alongside a day job - at a sweets and desserts shop. Which is the same challenge he faced back in Syria. Customers would often ask him how he managed to stick to his diet surrounded by cakes, but he says: “I do crave the desserts, but I have to resist. It’s tough to balance my work and personal diet, but in the end I know I can do it, and that’s how I get what I want.”

Photo: Private

Being able to continue his hobby has helped Tello to settle into his new country, though he says it is different from being a body-builder in Syria.

While Syria had great gyms with advanced equipment for body-builders, Swedish culture makes it easy to prepare for contests, because of the emphasis on healthy lifestyles. There is a wide choice of food available, for example, which helps athletes to stick to their diets.

“Training every day is part of the culture - working out in Sweden is like praying in Syria.”

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