Refugee Olympic athletes restore hope in humanity

By Zaheer E. Clarke

Published August 6, 2016
Republished August 7, 2016, in the Jamaica Observer

10 refugees, from war-ravaged parts of the world, will compete together on one team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Their stories of triumph offer hope to 65 million worldwide.

Rose Lokonyen carries the Olympic flag and leads the Refugee Olympic Team during the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Games in Rio. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

A proud Rose Lokonyen, carrying the flag, leads the other members of the Refugee Olympic Team at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

On Friday night, during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, ten athletes walked out with the Olympic anthem playing in the background, to the joy, tears, and dreams of 65 million refugees displaced across the world.

With the assistance of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for the first time at the Olympics, athletes from the war-ravaged parts of the world will compete as one team – the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT).

The Refugee Olympic Team takes to the stage with IOC President Thomas Bach to be introduced to all members of the International Olympic Committee. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

The Refugee Olympic Team takes to the stage with IOC President Thomas Bach to be introduced to all members of the International Olympic Committee.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

“These refugees have no home, they have no team, they have no national anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach remarked at a press conference on Tuesday. “We are offering them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the other athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour, and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium.”

These displaced athletes have come from the war-torn countries of Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Fittingly, they will compete in three sports: Athletics, Judo, and Swimming, which represent the basic tenets of survival they have all employed to reach the Olympics.

Yonas Kinde runs in a wooded area during a training session near the National Insititute of Sports in Luxembourg. © UNHCR/Gordon Welters

Yonas Kinde runs in a wooded area during a training session near the National Insititute of Sports in Luxembourg.
© UNHCR/Gordon Welters

The youngest member of the team, 18-year-old Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini will be competing in the women’s 100m butterfly and freestyle events.

On Tuesday she said, “We don’t have the same language. We’re all from different countries. But the Olympic flag united us together, and now we are representing 60 million [people] around the world. We want to show everyone that we can do anything.”

Yusra Mardini and Yiech Pur Biel each gave speeches on behalf of the Refugee Olympic Team to a meeting of all IOC members in Rio. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Yusra Mardini and Yiech Pur Biel each gave speeches on behalf of the Refugee Olympic Team to a meeting of all IOC members in Rio. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

This time last year, after her house was destroyed, Yusra fled Syria to Lebanon, travelled to Turkey, and then to Greece en route to Germany. On her torturous journey from Turkey to Greece, while travelling in a teeny motorboat – built to accommodate six persons, but having 20 persons aboard – the motor died. To save the lives of her fellow refugees and prevent the boat from sinking, Yusra, her sister Sarah, and another woman jumped in the water, pushed and pulled the dinghy while swimming for three-and-a-half hours until they arrived at the Greek island of Lesbos.

“It’s a positive memory for me,” Yusra declared. “I swam for my life when the boat sank. Without swimming, I don’t think I survive. I don’t think I rise to this level at the Olympic Games.”

Yusra Mardini training on Monday at the Olympic swimming pool. She says she is ready to swim for her life — again. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Yusra Mardini training on Monday at the Olympic swimming pool. She says she is ready to swim for her life — again.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

During the opening ceremony, Rose Lokonyen was the ROT flag-bearer, who led out this special group of athletes. This formidable 23-year-old runner will be contesting the 800m at the Olympics. Interestingly, at 10 years old, she and her family were forced to leave their home and run from the war-weary region of South Sudan to Kenya. On Friday night, she walked proudly with the Olympic flag.

Congolese judoka Yolande Mabika declared, in reference to her time as a youngster on the streets of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “We had to fight for everything … For me, judo was a way of defending myself and surviving.” Mabika has been fighting to survive all her life, from the streets of Kinshasa to Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Three years ago, while at the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio, as a regular occurrence, she and her compatriots would be starved, beaten and imprisoned by their oppressive coaches after they suffered losses. Gratefully, she managed to escape. Astonishingly, she has survived the tyranny of her coaches and the once daily atrocities in DRC. And through judo, at the Olympics, she’ll keep on surviving.

Yolande Bukasa Mabika, also from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was tearful as she and Misenga were named to the team. (Photo credit: Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

Yolande Bukasa Mabika (left), from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was tearful as she and Popole Misenga (right) were named to the Refugee Olympic team. After escaping her oppressive coaches, she went back to free Misenga from the tyranny. 
(Photo credit: Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

Two Fridays ago (July 29), Paul Lokoro, one of the six South Sudanese refugees on the ROT team, said, “I really want to meet Usain Bolt, he is someone I’ve only seen on television. I hope I can at least see him in the Olympic Village.”

Though Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are Olympic legends in their own rights, the athletes everyone wants to see and celebrate at the 2016 Rio Olympics are the athletes on the Refugee Olympic Team.

The main attraction at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics were the members of the Refugee Olympic team.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

In all, there are two swimmers, six runners, and two judokas competing under the Olympic flag for the ROT. Of the ten, possibly none will win a medal or reach an event final. However, for the millions of refugees and fans worldwide, getting to watch them participate in the Olympics has more significance and worth than any other athlete winning a bronze, silver or gold medal.

Despite a return to many of their countries and homes possibly lost forever, for the millions of refugees worldwide, the refugee Olympic athletes – for now – are restoring their hope in humanity.

“REFUGEES ARE HUMANS TOO.”

© Zaheer Clarke

Zaheer E. Clarke is a freelance sportswriter, whose heart goes out to refugees worldwide and detest the war crime atrocities they face. In the words of Rodney King, he wonders, as humans, “can’t we all just get along”.

Zaheer can be reached at zaheer.clarke@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook at Zaheer Facts, Lies & Statistics, or on Twitter at @zaheerclarke.

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