​Refugees set aside their scars and trauma to focus on their quest for Olympic glory

Popole Misenga, a refugee from the DRC, near his home in Rio de Janeiro. (Pilar Olivares, Reuters)

Popole Misenga, a refugee from the DRC, near his home in Rio de Janeiro. (Pilar Olivares, Reuters)

This year, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will be the first ever to host a team comprised entirely of refugees. It consists of six male and four female athletes who have fled South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria and Ethiopia. They will compete in the Games and enter the opening ceremony in Maracana Stadium under the Olympics flag.

Forty-three people competed for a spot on the refugees team.
The good news was announced by International Olympics Community (IOC) president Thomas Bach when he revealed the team to the media.

“These refugee athletes have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium.”

Here are some of their stories.

Swimmers from Syria
Rami Anis (25) and Yusra Mardini (18) are two swimmers from Syria who will compete in the refugees’ team.

Yusra and her sister fled her hometown of Damascus in August last year, first reaching Lebanon and then Turkey, where she paid smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece and seek asylum in Europe.

According to a story by nonprofit American radio broadcaster NPR, the dinghy started taking on water, so Yusra and her sister, both strong swimmers, jumped in the sea to give the half-sunk boat more buoyancy. After spending three-and-half hours in the water, she finally reached the island of Lesbos.

In Germany, where she finally settled, she connected with a swimming club and started training for the Olympics.

In a video released by the IOC, Yusra describes her last training in Syria as “looking up at the roof over a pool and seeing the sky through holes blown by bombs”.

Although 2016 marks the opening of the Rio Olympics, it is the fifth year of the war in Syria, with no end in sight.

Judokas from the DRC
Popole Misenga (24) and Yolande Mabika (28) applied for asylum in Brazil while visiting the country for the 2013 Rio World Judo Championship.

Both come from Bukavu in the east of the DRC, an area where violence and human rights violations have persisted even after the end of the Second Congo War.

Both said they were mistreated by their coach in the DRC each time they lost a competition. According to them, he would lock them up for days with limited access to food.

After being granted asylum in Brazil, they settled in Rio de Janeiro and were offered training in the judo school founded by Flávio Canto, a Brazilian Olympic bronze medallist.

Track athletes from South Sudan
For 30 months, the South Sudan civil war pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighbouring countries. But five lucky Kenya-based South Sudanese athletes have been selected to join the refugee team.

They are Paulo Amotun Lokoro (24), Yiech Pur Biel (21), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (23), Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (21) and James Nyang Chiengjiek (28). All five athletes live and train in Kenya and will compete in the 800m or 1 500m events at the Olympics.

They share horrifying stories of escape, hunger and suffering as refugees. Biel told Radio Tamazuj, a daily news service covering South Sudan: “In the refugee camp, we have no facilities — even shoes we don’t have. There is no gym. Even the weather does not favour training because from morning up to the evening it is so hot and sunny.”

Marathon runner from Ethiopia
Marathon runner Yonas Kinde (36) fled Ethiopia and has lived for five years in Luxembourg, taking French classes regularly and driving a taxi for a living.

“It’s impossible for me to live there … It’s very dangerous for my life,” he told the United Nations refugee agency about his home country.

He trains twice a day to prepare for the Games. “I will go to participate in the Olympic Games. I will be proud. I will be happy,” Kinde said to a reporter from the official Olympics website. He still finds it difficult to talk about why he had to leave Ethiopia.

Brazil’s open-door policy
Brazil has seen a surge in the number of asylum seekers in the past few years. In 2010, less than 1 000 people applied for asylum in Brazil. In 2015, it was more than 28 000.

Brazil is now home to 8 863 recognised refugees (excluding asylum seekers living in the country) from 81 nationalities, according to the Brazilian National Committee for Refugees. Most of them are from Syria, Colombia, Angola and the DRC.

Brazil has an open-door policy for asylum seekers — they are provided with residency, work permits and temporary travel documents while their refugee request is pending. Although the government does not provide special housing or allowance benefits for either refugees or asylum seekers, they are free to move around and find a job in the country, as well as access public healthcare services.

But it hasn’t been all good news for refugees in Brazil. The Brazilian provisional government, acting while President Dilma Rousseff is awaiting a final impeachment trial, has announced it is suspending all talks with the European Union over resettling refugees in the country.

Yet, only days away from the Olympics, Brazil has welcomed the refugee team with open arms.

Mario Cilenti, Rio 2016’s Olympic Village and National Olympics Committee relations director, said: “It is fantastic news that the IOC has created a team of refugee athletes to compete at the Rio 2016 Games.

“Alongside athletes from all corners of the globe, they will be received with open arms at the Olympic Village and by all of Rio 2016, and we are sure that Brazilians will also welcome them with the warmth for which they are renowned.”

Bach commented: “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.” — globalvoices.org

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