Resilience and Triumph: The Story of the Refugee Olympic Team

The Olympic games always have been about much more than just sports. The games of the 31st Olympiad have begun in Rio de Janeiro, and as you may have heard, they’re underway amid much concern and controversy. But there are still plenty of positive sides to it, and one of the biggest stories this year involves a group of athletes with some incredible backstories.

For the first time, a team of refugees will have their own delegation at the Olympic Games this year. The team features five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one from Ethiopia. These ten contenders will compete under the Olympic flag, and in the event that any of them win a medal, the Olympic anthem will be played. They can’t compete for their home countries since they have fled. However, winning is not nearly as important to these athletes as the journey it took to get to Rio and the perseverance required to make that journey. Nor is it more important than the message they are trying to send to the world.

20 year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini knows all about perseverance. Mardini escaped from her hometown of Damascus during the ongoing war which produced routine bombings. She explains that she would often be training when the roofs of houses were being blown up. She and her sister decided to escape on a boat with 18 other refugees after their house was destroyed.

Suddenly, after leaving Turkey, the boat’s motor failed, forcing the Mardini sisters and two other talented swimmers to attempt a desperate last-chance solution – they tied ropes around themselves and dragged the boat for three and a half hours until they finally reached Greece, saving the lives of all 20 refugees. On Saturday, she competed in the women’s 100-meter butterfly. This Wednesday, she will be competing again, in the women’s 100-meter freestyle.

Every member of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) has overcome unimaginable obstacles to make it to the Olympics. The five South Sudanese athletes all grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where track and field was one of the few things that was able to lift their spirits. Sprinter James Chiengjiek fled his home nation as a teenager in the middle of the Sudanese Civil War. Had he stayed, he would have been at risk of being taken by rebels to become a child soldier. Many of these athletes have been in Kakuma for years, and have done a good amount of their training without shoes. Track and Field runner Anjelina Lohalith moved from South Sudan to Kenya as a child after her entire village was destroyed. If she is able to win big, she wants to build her father a new house. She has not seen her parents since she was six.

Similarly, Popole Misenga has not seen his brothers since he was six. Misenga is a judoka originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has taken asylum in Brazil. He does not know what his brothers look like anymore. At the age of six, Misenga was found wandering a rainforest in hiding for a week following the murder of his mother. Now married with a son, he is grateful for the fact that he was able to relocate and start a new life in Rio in 2013. His goal in the Olympics is “to win a medal and inspire refugees from all over the world. Afterwards, I want to stay in Rio. God has made this a magical place.”

Some of the refugee athletes, however, still wish to go back to the countries they once called their home. Now living in Germany, Yusra Mardini hopes she can one day return to her native Syria, but for the time being, she is hoping that her story will bring awareness to the refugee crisis around the world. Rami Anis, a fellow Syrian swimmer for the Refugee Olympic Team, echoes that idea. “I do hope that by Tokyo 2020 there will be no refugees”, he says. “Nothing is nearer and dearer to my heart than the homeland.”

The Refugee Olympic Team may or may not win any medals, but their participation is proof that the Olympics are about much more than just sports. It’s about bringing people from all around the world together in one place, people who come from all different kinds of circumstances. These ten refugees hope that their determination will shed light on one of the biggest issues today’s world faces, in regards to both the life of refugees and the unrest that is present in many parts of the world. The best moments of the Olympics happen when the entire world can rally around certain athletes, as it is sure to do for these contenders. Hopefully, the day won’t be too far in the future where there won’t be a need for a Refugee Olympic Team.

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