Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos
One team that is sure to make an impression at the 2016 Olympic Games is the first ever refugee team: two swimmers, two judoka (judo fighters), and six track and field athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All ten athletes have a heart-wrenching story to share about their journey from war-torn and impoverished countries to the biggest athletic stage in the world.
Yusra Mardini grew up in Syria and, at the age of just 14, represented her country in the short-course swimming world championship in 2012. However, as conflict in the country escalated, she and her sister were forced to pack up and leave the country. The two were crammed, along with 18 other refugees, onto a small boat between Turkey and Greece when the boat broke down. Mardini and her sister had to enter the water and pull for three hours. The horrific experience later developed into a fear of open water for her, yet she recalls: “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me.” The swimmer was challenged by the water. But the water did not know what it was up against.
Rami Anis grew up in Syria as well. He too fled the country at the age of 20, when he was old enough to be drafted into the nation’s army. Before the Syrian Civil War began, Anis was a member of the national swim team. After leaving the country, he continued to train in Turkey, but his lack of Turkish citizenship prevented him from competing. In 2015, he took a journey similar to Mardini, with more luck being one of the boat’s occupants. After travelling from Turkey to Greece, he settled in Belgium, where he worked his way to the Olympic stage. According to Time, while he is not expected to win a medal, he said his “dream has relatively come true… [He is] going to represent millions of refugees around the world.”
Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, made an asylum bid during the 2013 World Judo Championships, which also took place in Rio de Janeiro. Their decisions were caused not only by the long-lasting violence in the country, but also by the abusive actions of national coaches who “locked them up when they lost and sometimes failed to feed them for two days in a row.” Mabika is hopeful that her family in the DRC will see her on television, so that they might reconnect. Misenga, on the other hand, says “I represent everyone. I’ll get a medal for all the refugees.”
Yonas Kinde left his home country of Ethiopia due to political issues. He has spent the past five years in Luxembourg, running in races across Europe. According to his coach, Yves Goldi, had he been a Luxembourg citizen, he would have made the country’s Olympic team. For Kinde, hope has come in the form of the refugee team, where he will be running in the men’s marathon. “I will be proud. I will be happy,” said Kinde, according to Rio 2016.
Paolo Amotun Lokoro, James Chiangjiek, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith and Yiech Pur Biel were all born in southern Sudan but eventually fled to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in the early 2000s after the outbreak of the civil war. Lokoro remained in Sudan after his parents fled, but he was eventually forced to flee as well and was reunited with his mother. Chiangjiek fled with his mother several years after he lost his father, who was a soldier. Lokonyen fled with her family, but her parents returned to Sudan in 2008. Lohalith made the journey to Kenya alone when she was six and has had no communication with her family since. She hopes that success in the Olympics will allow her to reconnect with her family. Biel also made the journey alone and, according to Quartz, considers himself an ambassador for refugees. “We are human beings like other people, you see.” In 2013, Chiangjiek moved to Nairobi to train at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. Lokoro, Lokonyen and Lohalith followed in 2015 after being selected by professional coaches sent on a scouting trip to the camp. Lokoro, Chiangjiek and Lokonyen have all spoken openly about their struggles, especially regarding training in the refugee camp where they often did not have shoes. Even during the scouting trials held by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, “[s]ome of use were running without shoes, like me, I was running barefoot,” said Lokonyen, according to Rio 2016.
These ten athletes marched on August 5, 2016 under the Olympic flag representing not their countries, but the estimated 21.3 million refugees across the world, according to UNHCR. Rose Lokonyen said it best when she told UNHCR that “[t]his is the first chance for the refugees to participate in the Olympics and to give us hope, for us to encourage the young generations of fellow refugees who are remaining in the camps maybe to continue their talent.”