On August 5, a historic team of 10 athletes will march into the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro as the second-to-last squad (host Brazil is the last) in the parade of nations to open the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Unlike other teams, these 10 athletes will not march under a national flag, but rather the Olympic rings. That’s because they have all fled their homelands due to conflicts that have forcibly displaced 65 million people worldwide in 2015 alone.
This year, these athletes are receiving a unique chance.
For the first time ever, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is welcoming a team of refugee athletes to the Olympics. The six male and four female athletes were named to the Refugee Olympic Team in June. They include swimmers from Syria, judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and runners from South Sudan and Ethiopia.
“At first, when I heard there was a possibility to fight in the Olympics, I thought, ‘How is that possible? I’m a refugee!’” marveled Yolande Bukasa Mabika, a judoka from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who now trains in Brazil. “I couldn’t believe it until they explained it to me.”
“I would never imagine this was possible, I got back to judo without knowing. Now I’m really touched. I think about it every time, and I just can’t believe it,” she said.
Mabika’s story, and those of her nine teammates, all encompass struggles with adversity — war, the loss of loved ones, life in refugee camps. The athletes aim to make the most of their opportunity.
“Now I’m training a lot because I want to win a medal,” Mabika said. “I believe I can win.”
The IOC created the Refugee Olympic Team as a way to address the global refugee crisis and help individual refugee athletes.
“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
“These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” the statement continues.
The team is fully funded by the IOC through the Olympic Solidarity Association, said Nora Sturm of the Geneva press office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“The Refugee Olympic Team is composed exclusively of refugee athletes — they were all forcibly displaced from their countries and had to seek asylum elsewhere,” Sturm said.
Mabika and her fellow Congolese judoka Popole Misenga each fled first the civil war in their home region of Bukasa, then mistreatment by their national coach, escaping to Brazil. Swimmers Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini escaped the turmoil of the Syrian civil war for Belgium and Germany, respectively. Marathoner Yonas Kinde left the refugee camps of Ethiopia to train in Luxembourg.
The other half of the team comes from South Sudan and is training in Kenya. Yiech Pur Biel will compete in the 800 meters, as will Rose Nathike Lokonyen. James Nyang Chiengjiek will run the 400 meters. Anjelina Nada Lohalith and Paulo Amotun Lokoro will each run the 1,500 meters.
‘I was a man without a country. If I ran for Sudan, I would be betraying my people’
At 23 years old, Nathike is among the youngest of the athletes, yet she has been an officially-recognized refugee for the longest time, since 2002.
The runners’ coach in Kenya is the coach of the entire Refugee Olympic Team: Tegla Loroupe, a three-time Olympian for Kenya and a world record-holder in the 20K, 25K and 30K (and formerly in the marathon). Loroupe, the first woman from Africa to win the New York City Marathon, works with the refugee runners through her Peace Foundation.
There is a precedent for refugee athletes competing in the Olympics. At the Summer Games in London in 2012, South Sudanese refugee Guor Mading Maker competed under the Olympic flag and finished 47th in the marathon.
“I was a man without a country,” he told the BBC last year. “If I ran for Sudan, I would be betraying my people. I would be dishonoring the two million people who died for our freedom. The IOC looked at my case and said, ‘Yes, he’s a refugee, so he’s going to run under the Olympic flag.’”
In an interesting twist, he will be competing in Rio as well, under the flag of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation; he returned to his homeland in 2013.
“It is a great feeling and relief that South Sudan can now compete at the Rio Olympics,” he told the BBC. “To stand on the starting line wearing a South Sudan vest will be amazing. A lot of people lost their lives for the freedom of the country we have now. That’s what I run for and that’s the reason I want to go and represent the flag.”
But the members of the Refugee Olympic Team have not had a chance to return to their homelands — and in some cases, they do not want to.
“For me, living in Brazil is much better,” Mabika said. “In Congo, there was war all the time. You had one calm month and then problems started again. I don’t want to go back. I have friends here, no family. I want to send someone to look for my family. But I want to stay here and one day have my own family here.”
‘In Congo, there was war all the time. You had one calm month and then problems started again’
The ways in which the athletes fled their homes differ. Some were children, others were already competing in their sport.
Nathike was about nine years old when she became a refugee. Pur, now 21, was officially recognized as a refugee in 2005, when he was around 10 years old. Amotun, 24, was officially recognized as a refugee almost 10 years ago. Nyang, 28, and Nadai, 21, did not become official refugees until 2014, but they each escaped South Sudan for Kenya much earlier, in 2002. All five South Sudanese athletes had sought refuge earlier in life at the Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya.
By contrast, Anis, 25, and Mardini, the youngest team member at 18, were both international competitors for Syria before the civil war made life untenable.
Anis turned 20 when the war began and sought to avoid conscription into the army. He and his family decided to join his brother in Istanbul.
“In 2011, I left Syria, as kidnapping and explosions started,” Anis said in Arabic during a video interview on the IOC website. “The situation was really dangerous and I could not continue to stay in the country… When I left, I really thought it would last two to three months and I would be able to come back.”
Instead, five years later, Anis and his family moved further from their homeland when they left Istanbul to join relatives in Belgium.
‘From Greece we walked to Macedonia, then we walked over the border with Serbia, and then Hungary, Austria, Germany then Belgium’
“I left Istanbul to Izmir and from there I took a rubber boat and crossed to Greece,” Anis told the IOC. “From Greece we walked to Macedonia, then also we walked over the border with Serbia, and then Hungary, Austria, Germany then Belgium.”
“Of course we took a lot of bus transportation and traveled by train,” he said. “The journey lasted 10 days for us to get from Izmir to Belgium. It was a very terrible experience. We could not get the right or proper food, we lived on fruits and juices. We were also not able to sleep as most of the time we had to cross the borders at night.”
Mardini, who formerly lived in Damascus, needed to call on her swimming skills to help herself and fellow refugees escape.
She, her sister Sarah and about 20 other passengers were stranded in a vessel off the coast of Turkey. The Mardini sisters got into the water and started to push the boat towards Greece, and safety. Yusra Mardini lost her shoes but saved herself and everyone else on the vessel, which arrived on the isle of Lesbos.
“There were people who didn’t know how to swim,” Mardini told the office of the UNHCR. “It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown.”
Mabika and Misenga each faced two separate periods of difficulty in life: first as child refugees, then as athletes mistreated by their coach.
They were born in Bukasa, described by the IOC as the Congolese region hardest-hit by the Second Congo War of 1998-2003.
Misenga, 24, was separated from his family when he was nine years old, during the final years of the war.
“My father was working, my sister was in school. My mom was dead,” Misenga said. “I ran for days in the woods and then I was rescued by UNICEF.”
Mabika, 28, was separated from her parents when she was 10 years old, during the First Congo War of 1996-97.
“I only remember that I was going out of school one day and then we got separated,” she said. “I saw my friends going to school and suddenly I had no school. I had nobody to help me study. Everything was so hard. I was rescued by a military airplane that brought the survivors to the capital, Kinshasa.”
Mabika and Misenga each found what seemed like a path to success in life, the 19th-century Japanese martial art of judo.
“They had some projects that worked with sports [in Kinshasa] and then I learned judo,” Mabika said. “Some years later I started to train in other clubs.”
Five years after that, she was invited to join the Congolese national team.
Misenga, too, had learned judo through a sports project and became good enough at it to receive a berth on the national team with Mabika.
“I started to travel for African championships, won some medals,” Mabika said.
‘If you didn’t win they would put you in small rooms for 10 days without proper food’
However, she said, “In Congo, life was hard for the athletes. If you didn’t win they would put you in small rooms for seven out of 10 days without proper food. You could only have some coffee and small bread. But judo was the only thing I had that I liked.”
It would prove an escape route for both judokas when they traveled with the national team to Brazil for the World Championships in 2013.
“Our coach took our passports and left us without food for days,” Mabika remembered. “I was starving. I couldn’t compete that way, I was weak.”
“It was a very hard time,” Misenga said. “I didn’t have a home, money or food. Everything was missing in my life. I was hungry, but I fought in the world championship.”
Mabika had had enough.
“I just thought, ‘This is my opportunity to stay in this country,’” she said. “I ran away, but came back for Popole. We walked for days in the streets trying to communicate, find other Africans. We found an African community in Rio, people helped us.”
It wasn’t easy — neither one spoke Portuguese — but Misenga said that a fellow refugee from Angola introduced him to Caritas, a Catholic organization that helps refugees in Brazil.
Judo had helped them escape, but Mabika wondered whether she would ever practice it again.
‘When I came to Brazil and ran away, I thought I would never compete again’
“When I came to Brazil and ran away, I thought I would never compete again,” she said.
But the Refugee Olympic Team is all about helping forcibly displaced people find a second chance in life.
Heading into the 2016 Summer Olympics, national Olympic committees (NOCs) around the world received requests to identify refugee athletes who could potentially qualify for Rio. The initial list included 43 competitors.
The 10 who made the team were chosen through the NOCs of both their host countries and countries of origin, along with international federations and the UNHCR.
“In addition to having refugee status which was verified by UNHCR, the athletes had to meet qualifying standards laid out by the various federations of their respective disciplines,” said Sturm, of the UNHCR press office.
Two of the athletes who made the final cut were already in Brazil: Mabika and Misenga.
The former Congolese national team members had begun training again, at the Instituto Reacao, under Geraldo de Moraes Bernardes, a former coach of the Brazilian national team.
“When we came to Reação we didn’t know we would have this chance,” Misenga said. “I just wanted to fight judo again. When they told me about this opportunity, I was really glad, but I didn’t know it would work.”
It has worked out – not only for Misenga, but also for his teammates.
Over the past few years, the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation has held athletics tryouts at the Kakuma camp in Kenya. Those who perform well may receive an invitation to train with the foundation. Nyang received such an invite in 2013. His current South Sudanese refugee teammates all joined the foundation last year — Pur and Amotun through tryouts, Nadai and Nathike after participating in a 10K.
Kinde met the qualifying time for his event at the Frankfurt Marathon last October.
Mardini and Anis each found renewed swimming success by joining clubs in their host countries — Mardini with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 e.V. in Germany and Anis with the Mega Club in Belgium, coached by former Olympian Carine Verbauwen.
‘Life brought me this opportunity and I will fight to win. I don’t know if it will be bronze or silver, but I want a medal’
Anis told the IOC that the Refugee Olympic Team “is a great idea, as a support from the IOC to the refugees. Without this support we would not have been able to take part in such a great event as the Olympic Games.”
In less than a month, the refugee athletes will realize their dream of participating in the Olympics. Once, they had been forgotten by the world; now they will compete on the world stage.
Videos on the IOC website show them training: running middle distance, long distance and sprint races in Kenya; doing laps in the pool; and, for Misenga and Mabika, wrestling opponents to the mat.
The athletes have been approaching this moment with a mixture of excitement and reflection.
“I am really happy to represent the refugee team, to be able to fight in the Olympic Games,” Misenga said. “Life brought me this opportunity and I will fight to win. I don’t know if it will be bronze or silver, but I want a medal.”
Like her teammate and friend, Mabika said, “I really want to win. But it is an honor just to be in an Olympic Games. I have never imagined I would get this far and now I want to win!”
Tempering the celebration is the fact that many of the millions of refugees worldwide are not able to get this far, and that the refugee crisis is not only continuing, it is growing.
“We are witnessing the highest levels of forced displacement on record for several reasons,” said Sturm, of the UNHCR press office.
‘We are witnessing the highest levels of forced displacement on record’
She said that situations that “cause large refugee outflows are lasting longer,” citing conflicts in Somalia or Afghanistan that are now into their third and fourth decades, respectively. She noted that “dramatic new or reignited situations are occurring frequently,” with “today’s largest being Syria, but also in the space of the past five years [countries such as] South Sudan, Yemen, Burundi, Ukraine, Central African Republic.”
And, she said, “the rate at which solutions are being found for refugees and internally displaced people has been on a falling trend since the end of the Cold War.”
Perhaps it was Anis who summed it up the best in an interview with the IOC.
“I hope to convey a good perception and represent refugees worldwide,” he said. “And I also hope that by the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, there won’t be a refugee left, and all the athletes around the world can compete for their own country. A Syrian with Syria, an Iraqi with Iraq. Wars end and we will return to participating and representing our countries.”
In the meantime, all he and his teammates can do is show the world that refugees can prevail against all odds when the Refugee Olympic Team makes its entrance into the Maracana on August 5.
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