Since its inception, the Olympic Games have been about bringing nations together. For the first time, this will include athletes without countries, flags or an Olympic committee: refugees. In October, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced the good news for refugees.
UNHCR estimates that there are over 20 million refugees. From this group, 43 athletes were selected as potential Olympians. This number was reduced to 10 athletes from four countries participating in athletics, swimming and judo.
At the opening ceremony, these athletes will march with the Olympic flag and the Olympic anthem. Coaches and funding are provided by the International Olympic Committee.
Brazil currently hosts two refugee athletes. Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga are judoists from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC’s civil war from 1998-2003 cost Mabika and Misenga many family members and left their home, Bukavu, ruined. Both faced horrible training conditions, including being locked up without food every time they lost a match.
When their coach disappeared during the World Judo Championships in Rio 2013, they used the opportunity to seek asylum. Both were woefully unprepared: Misenga reports stopping people and asking in French where Africans lived. Mabika was only able afford an apartment in a favela after financial assistance from the Olympic committee.
Both are thankful for their martial arts experience. Mabika is grateful for the strength it provided her, and Misenga states that it helps him find peace.
Mabika, Misenga and their eight team members are truly what Bach describes as a “symbol of hope for all the refugees in the world.” Yiech Pur Biel, a refugee from South Sudan now living in a camp in Northern Kenya, said, “I can show my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life. Through education, but also in running, you can change the world.”
The games have also been good news for refugees living in Brazil, helping them feel more connected to their new country of residence. Hanan Khaled Daqqah, a 12-year-old from Syria, said that she felt Brazilian when she carried the torch through her new home.
By putting this team in the spotlight, international attention will hopefully grow more positive towards refugees. Already, the media has spread the story of Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and two others braving the open ocean to drag a boat filled with refugees to shore after the boat’s motor failed.
All 10 of the refugee athletes share inspirational stories like Mabika, Misenga, Biel and Mardini. After escaping war or poverty, they have managed to balance poor living conditions, work and acclimating to a new country with their intense Olympic training. With all the controversy surrounding refugees, the positive media attention highlighting these brave athletes and their accomplishments is good news for refugees.
– Jeanette I. Burke