The Rio 2016 Olympic Games will become a historic event also thanks to Popole Misenga, an athlete of the team of refugees has got through a heat in the 90 kg judo category, becoming the first refugee athlete to win an Olympic race. The twenty-four was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but has been living in Brazil for a long time. He left his homeland because of the way he was treated in the judo national team. “Our coach was out of his wits. He spent all the federal money on prostitutes and alcohol – he said in a recent interview to the media -. During the World Cup in 2013, we were left without food for three days. It is impossible to be performing in such condition. ”
At the age of nine, he had been forced to separate from his family and to flee from the clashes going on in Kisingani: he was found eight days later, hiding in a forest, and was transported to the capital, Kinshasa, in a center for displaced children. There, he began practicing judo, but every time he lost a race, his trainer locked him up in a cage for days, giving him only coffee and bread. Because of the war and of the conditions in which he was forced to live, Misenga asked for refugee status and obtained it. He moved to Brazil and has been training there at a judo school founded by Flavio Canto, a former judoka who won an Olympic bronze medal.
His story is moving, but it is not the only one. In Rio there are ten athletes – 6 men and 4 women from Sudan, Syria, Congo and Ethiopia – who represent a beacon of hope for refugees from all latitudes. Each of them has something unique to tell, an experience of suffering and war, but also of rebirth.
Besides Popole Misenga, in judo there is also Mabika Yolande, 28, of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They both come from Bukavu, an area east of the DRC, decimated by a conflict that began in 1998 and finished in 2003, causing 5 million deaths. Both were separated from their families and accommodated in a center for displaced children in Kinshasa. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has guaranteed both of them the refugee status in September 2014. After admission to the Games news, Yolande burst into tears: “Judo has never given me money, but it has given me a strong heart.” “I hope that my story – she said – can become an example for everyone, and maybe my family will see me. Maybe we can be together again.”
Another story, more pain, new hopes. The 18 year-old swimmer Yusra Mardini, a refugee who found shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos, a year ago he saved dozens of people pushing the dinghy boat, along with his sister Sarah, to shore. Yusra dived into the sea when the engine of the boat on which he was sailing along with twenty other people fleeing from Syria got stuck during the terrible journey across the Aegean Sea. They paid no attention to the intense cold and fatigue. With strength and determination, they desired that the miracle of staying alive and landing on the Greek island could become a joy also for their traveling companions, who otherwise were destined to certain death. A categorical slap in the face of those who continue to consider immigrants only as a burden, a problem.
Yonas Kinde, a 36-year-old Ethiopian marathoner, began his sports career in his native country. He was welcomed as a refugee in Luxembourg in 2013. He never spared himself, combining sports with hard work: following French language courses with consistency, while working as a cab driver to make a living.
The flagship of the refugee team is Lokonyen Rose, 23 year-old 800m runner who arrived from south Sudan and currently a refugee in the Kakuma refugee camp, northern Kenya. Her family fled from their country thirteen years ago, when she was only ten. She would have never known she had this talent if a teacher had not noticed her, proposing to participate in a 10km race… Then, there are four other athletes, also from South Sudan, all of whom live in Kakuma, one of the world’s largest reception centers, with nearly 180,000 people.
The 400m runner Chiengjiek James, 28, fled when he was only thirteen, to avoid being seized by the rebels who were forcefully recruiting child soldiers. The 800m runner Yiech Biel, 21, said he focuses on his country “because young people are the ones who can change it” and on his parents: “I need to change their life.”
Then, there is the middle-distance runner Paulo Lokoro (1,500 meters for men), aged 24, and Anjelina Lohalith (1,500 meters for women), 21. Finally, another Syrian swimmer (100m butterfly style). His name is Rami Anis, 25, born and raised in Aleppo. He approached sports following in the steps of his uncle Majic, who had competed for Syria. He fled in 2011, when the situation in Aleppo was precipitating. Anis caught up with his older brother in Istanbul, training at the facilities of the prestigious Galatasaray sports club. After leaving Turkey on board a boat, he went to Belgium, which granted him asylum last December.
Pope Francis sent a tweet with his best wishes to all athletes in Rio. “Always be messengers of brotherhood and genuine sporting spirit,” he wrote. But the pontiff wanted to address specifically the team to refugees by sending them a moving letter. “Dear brothers – he wrote citing all 10 names of the athletes – I want to send you my greetings and my wishes of success in these Olympics. May courage and strength you carry inside find expression in the Olympic Games, a cry of brotherhood and peace. Through all of you, may the human kind understand that peace is possible, that in a peaceful context everyone has to gain, whereas in war you can lose everything.” “I wish – he concluded – that your testimony can be positive for all of us. I pray for you and, please, I ask you to pray for me. God bless you”.