They went through hard work and sweat, but not that of common athletes who are preparing for a competition. Because they are not part of a national team, they do not have a house, a flag nor an anthem. Their story is not of revenge but of hope, in the Olympic sign that has always represented also a time for reflection on wars. Ten athletes, two from Syria, two from Congo, five from Sudan and one from Ethiopia, and all of them are refugees. To be precise: two Syrians swimmers, two judoka from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and six runners from Ethiopia and South Sudan. They all fled from violence and persecution in their countries and sought refuge in places such as Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Kenya, and Brazil.
The initiative to send a team of refugees to the Rio Games is unprecedented and sends a strong message of support and hope for refugees around the world in a time when the number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflicts and persecution is unprecedented. The worldwide population of refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers reached a record of 59.5 million at the end of 2014 and it has been continuously growing ever since.
“We will provide a house for them in the Olympic village, as to all the other athletes of the world – said the president of the Olympic Committee Thomas Bach -. For them it will be played the Olympic anthem while the flag of the Olympic Games will be waving in the States to represent them. This will be a beacon of hope for all the refugees worldwide, and it will help the planet better understand the huge extent of the refugee crisis”. Who are they? Yiech While Biel, who will be competing in the 800m run; James Nyang Chiengjiek in the 400m run; Paulo Amotun Lokoro in the 1500m run; Rose Nathike Lokonyen in the 800m run, and Anjelina Nada Lohalith in the 1500m run. Yonas Kinde will compete as a marathon runner. Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, swimmers born in Syria. The two judokas Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika.
They all have a story to tell. Like Yusra, who has lost her shoes while crossing the sea that wanted to swallow her. She experienced the horror of being in the hands of the traffickers, first to get to Lesvos, then during her journey to Germany. “Biel comes from a refugee camp in northern Kenya, after escaping from South Sudan. Misenga, 9, remained eight days in the forest, after fleeing from Kisingani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, separated from his family by violence. He was recovered in poor condition and taken to a center for displaced children in Kinshasa. There, he began practicing Judo. But when he lost a completion, they closed in a cage and gave him no food. At the 2013 world championships, he has applied for asylum.
Stories that intertwine with those of other athletes of this “strange” national team. Almost everyone has lost contact with the families. Villages were destroyed, communication is impossible. Their hope to embrace their loved ones again is equal to that of sending a message to all refugees scattered around the world, especially to young people. The participation of a team of refugees in the Olympics is a milestone in the longstanding cooperation between UNHCR and Coi. This collaboration, which has lasted for 20 years, has played a decisive role in promoting the importance of sports in the development and wellbeing of the refugees around the world, especially children.
The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, believes it: “We are very inspired by the Olympic team of refugee athletes – forced to interrupt their sports careers, these high-level refugee athletes will finally have the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Their participation in the Olympics is a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees who are overcoming adversities and building a better future for themselves and for their families.”