By Lara Kajs
For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, a team of refugees, representing the 65 million people displaced by war and conflict, walked during the opening ceremony in Rio. They had no country flag and no national anthem, so they walked under the Olympic flag.
Team Refugees is comprised of swimmers, runners and judokas from Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are ten faces in the crowd, but each of these courageous and remarkable athletes overcame inconceivable adversity before their Olympic journey began.
A year ago, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini escaped war-torn Syria. At one point she was literally swimming for her life and the lives of 19 other refugees when the rubber dinghy they were in began taking on water as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece. For three and a half hours she and her sister swam, pulling the boat to shore and saving everyone on board. The two sisters reached Berlin in 2015 and Mardini started training at the Wasserfreunde Spandau club. She will participate in the 100m freestyle.
Rami Anis is a swimmer from the Syrian town of Aleppo, and like his teammate Mardini, he and his family also fled the war-torn country to Turkey. In 2015 Anis and his family made their way to Greece by raft and then on to Belgium where they were granted asylum. Rami Anis trained at the Royal Ghent Swimming Club in Belgium. He will compete in the 100m butterfly.
Yonas Kinde is distance runner and has competed in many marathons. At 36, he is the oldest member of Team Refugees. Originally from Ethiopia, Kinde said he lived in his home country until political unrest made it impossible to remain. He left in 2012, making his way to Luxembourg where he has been under international protection since 2013. Kinde will compete in the Olympic marathon.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga are from Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the area most affected by the civil war that occurred from 1998-2003. They represented the DRC in many judo competitions. Both athletes shared stories of assault by the Congolese coaches, a lack of food and being held in cage-like cells as punishment for not winning a bout. In 2013, during the World Judo Championships in Rio, both Mabika and Misenga decided to seek asylum in Brazil. They have been training at the Instituto Reação in Rio de JaneiroMabika will compete in the 70kg and Misenga will compete in the 90kg judo completion at the Summer Olympics in Rio.
Five members of the Olympic Refugee Team are Sudanese, but due to civil unrest and conflict they sought refuge at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. Kakuma is home to more than 180,000 people and is about the size of Knoxville, Tennessee. In early 2016, the Kenyan government announced that it plans to close Kakuma due to concerns of national security. It is uncertain what will happen to the residents of the refugee camp.
James Nyang Chiengjiek fled Bentiu, South Sudan to avoid being recruited a child soldier and forced to participate in the civil war. He has lived at the Kakuma refugee camp since 2002. He started running in the camp and UNHCR told him of the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. He was selected by the Foundation to train and he has been there since 2013. Chiengjiek will compete in the 400m run.
Yiech Pur Biel fled Nasir, South Sudan with his relatives to escape war in 2005. He lived in the Kakuma refugee camp for a decade and in 2015, Pur was selected by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation to train as a competitive athlete. Pur will compete in the 800m run.
Anjaline Nadai Lohalith escaped the war in South Sudan and arrived in Kakuma with her aunt in 2002. Lohalith participated in many funning competitions. In 2015, she participated in a 10km run sponsored by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation and was selected to train with the Foundation. Lohalith will compete in the 1500m run at the Olympics in Rio.
Rose Nathike Lokonyen and her family fled the war in South Sudan in 2002. They arrived in the Kakuma refugee camp and although her parents returned to South Sudan, she and her siblings stayed in Kakuma. In 2015 she participated in a 10km run sponsored by the Tegla Foundation and was selected to continue training with the Fondation. Lokonyen will compete in the 800m run in the Rio Olympics.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro fled South Sudan in 2006 because of the war, to join his mother in Kakuna refugee camp in Kenya, who had been there since 2004. Lokoro participated in sports at the Kakuna camp. In 2015, he was encouraged to participate in the competition organized by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation. He was selected to train at the Foundation and he has been there since. He will compete in the 1500m run in Rio.
Prior to the start of the games each member of Team Refugees received a letter from Pope Francis. In his letter, the Pope told the refugee athletes, “I extend my greetings and wish you success at the Olympic Games in Rio… that your courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity.”
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said of Team Refugees, that they will be a symbol of hope for all the displaced persons throughout the world. It is also the hope of the athletes that they will increase global awareness to the magnitude of the refugee crisis.
Good luck to all ten members of Team Refugees!
Featured Image: The Refugee Olympic Team arrives for the opening ceremony (David Gray/Reuters)