During the Parade of Nations in London’s Opening Ceremony for the 30th Olympics, Zimbabwe was followed out by the host nation. This year, however, Zimbabwe was not followed by the hosts; instead, the Refugee Olympic Team walked out, to cheers that were louder than any of the 205 preceding teams had heard. The team has garnered the support of the international community and won tons of hearts, but one question remains: who exactly are they?
The Refugee Olympic Team, or Team Refugees, is a team created for the 2016 Olympic Games, at which they are competing under the Olympic flag. They are competing separately from the Independent Olympic Athletes, or the IOA, and there are multiple reasons why. Firstly, historically, the IOA team has been made up of athletes whose national Olympic committees are suspended, corrupt and/or are boycotting the Olympic games. The only other uses of this team has been for athletes whose nation does not have its own Olympic Committee. Refugees, however, do not match any of this criteria. The ten Refugee Olympic Team athletes cannot compete for their homeland and are not eligible to qualify for their nation of residence. In cooperation with the United Nations and the International Paralympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee created the Refugee Olympic Team, in order to bring global attention to these refugees and their stories.
Out of the ten athletes, five originate from South Sudan and all five are currently hosted by Kenya. James Chiengjiek, aged 28 or 29, was born in Sudan, though with today’s borders, his family is considered to be South Sudanese. His father died during the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1999 and within 2 years, Chiengjiek escaped to Kenya in order to avoid becoming a child soldier. Since 2002, Chiengjiek has lived in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. While he was selected to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio and has been provided with trainers and support, the Kenyan government has shut down Kakuma, displacing as many as up to 180,000 people.
Another athlete of South Sudanese origin is Yiech Biel. He fled from his hometown of Nasir in 2005 and lived in the Kakuma Refugee Camp for ten years. He began running competitively in 2015; however, this task was an uphill battle due to the harsh conditions of the camp, tough training weather and lack of equipment. He now trains under one of Kenya’s all-time best marathon runners. Another athlete who escaped the Sudanese Civil War into Kenya is Paulo Lakoro, though very little is known about what he did after arriving in 2006. Similarly, Rose Lokonyen is known to have escaped South Sudan into the Kakuma Refugee Camp and her training is thought to have begun there. The last of the athletes from South Sudan is Angelina Lohalith, who also grew up in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. She attended primary school in the camp and won various competitions. Her talent was first recognized when national scouts came to Kakuma and she now trains in Nairobi with the other four athletes from South Sudan. All five of these athletes will compete in the coming days.
Yonas Kinde is the only refugee originating from Ethiopia and he now resides in Luxembourg. He left Ethiopia in 2012, due to rising political tensions, and now drives a taxi to get by. Kinde has been running since high school, beginning at cross country and 10,000 meters and slowly moving up to half marathons and marathons, which is he is competing in at the 2016 Olympic games. Like the rest of his team members, he currently cannot represent Luxembourg, though his timings indicate that he would easily be able to compete for them.
The remaining four athletes are divided: two originate from Syria and the other two are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unlike some of the athletes who originate from South Sudan, these athletes stories do not remain a mystery and instead, have become very public. From Syria, Rami Anis will compete in swimming at these Rio 2016 games. Anis currently resides in Belgium and unlike many of the other competitors, who’ve spent many years away from home, on this Refugee Olympic Team, Anis only left Syria in 2012, during the early stages of the Syrian Civil War. Following that, he lived with his brother in Turkey and began his training. Eventually, he moved to Belgium to improve himself and follow his Olympic dream.
The two athletes who originate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are both judokas residing in Brazil. Yolande Mabika is from the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – one of the most dangerous regions in the world. As a young child, Mabika was separated from her parents and taken to a children’s home. The Congolese government advises orphans to take up judo in order to find some structure in life. The other athlete from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Popole Mosingna, comes from the same region. His mother was killed in the Second Congo War, after which he wandered around a rainforest for days before being rescued. Mabika and Mosingna eventually met when they traveled to Brazil to compete at the 2013 World Judo Championships.
While in Brazil for this international competition, the Congolese nationals sought political asylum. Mabika and Mosingna claimed that their coaches had taken their passports, meal tickets, and money, and that they had been confined to their hotel room until they escaped. They met an Angolan who took them to an African-packed neighborhood in Brazil. Upon escape from their coaches confinement, the athletes claimed that if they had performed poorly in any competition, their coaches would lock them in cages. In September 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees granted them refugee status. They now live in Brazil – Mabika has lived in various favelas, or Brazilian slums, while Mosingna is married to a Brazilian woman and has a son.
The last of the athletes has what is, perhaps, the most heartwarming stories of them all. Eighteen year old Yusra Mardini was born in Syria and is currently a resident of Germany. Mardini’s house was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War and as a result, she and her sister, Sarah, fled from the war torn nation. They traveled through Lebanon and Turkey, from which they were arranged to sneak out of the nation with eighteen other refugees. The problem was that the eighteen were supposed to travel on a seven-person dinghy. The motor gave out and to avoid drowning, Mardini, Sarah, and two others who could swim began to push the boat while swimming.
It took more than three hours before they made it to the coast of Greece. Along with their parents, Mardini and her sister settled in Berlin, Germany in September 2015. Mardini competed in the Women’s 100m Butterfly event and although she did not advance past the first round, she won her heat and exited the stadium to some of the loudest cheers at the Rio Olympic Games.
The Refugee Olympic Team is far more than ten athletes: it is a movement of hope for every refugee in the world. The ten athletes serve as the face of this movement and like many other refugees, they also have their stories . They came to Rio with the hope of bringing the world’s attention to refugees and that is precisely what they have done.