Refugees: A Journey to the 2016 Rio Olympics

Every competitor at the 2016 Olympics will have undergone a personal journey to reach Rio. But for some athletes, notably a number of refugee competitors, the path has been truly life changing. And despite leaving everything behind in their country of origin, not living nor having a conducive environment for years, no flag, no national anthem. It is historical, truly an exciting and life changing opportunity for refugees to take part in the Olympics for the first time.

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Image credit: Andy Miah

Every competitor at the 2016 Olympics will have undergone a personal journey to reach Rio. But for some athletes, notably a number of refugee competitors, the path has been truly life changing. And despite leaving everything behind in their country of origin, not living nor having a conducive environment for years, no flag, no national anthem. It is historical, truly an exciting and life changing opportunity for refugees to take part in the Olympics for the first time.

Yusra Mardini, along with the nine other athletes that make up the Olympic Refugee team. Aged 14, Mardini swam for Syria at swimming’s short-course world championships in 2012. But with her home destroyed in the ongoing conflict, she and her sister decided to flee the country in August last year. From Lebanon they reached Turkey and then took a boat to Greece – but the boat began to slowly sink as it took on water during the journey. Mardini had to jump into the water and, summoning all of her swimming and survival know-how, help push the boat and its occupants until it safely reached Greek shores. She now lives and trains in Germany.

Like Mardini, Rami Anis is another accomplished swimmer. Anis had been expected to make Syria’s team for London 2012 in the men’s event. But in 2011, faced with bombing in his hometown of Aleppo and the prospect of an army call-up, he decided to follow his brother to Turkey. However, four years later, Anis remained barred from competing with his teammates as he was a refugee. With help from smugglers, he chanced a terrifying dinghy trip to Greece then made his way to Belgium, where he was finally granted asylum in December last year.

Yonas Kinde lived in Ethiopia until, he says, political and economic difficulties made it “impossible” to continue in his country as an athlete. Kinde left Ethiopia in 2012 and reached Luxembourg, where he has since been earning a living as a taxi driver while continuing to train as a distance runner. He will be on the Rio men’s marathon start line.

Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga were members of the Congolese judo team at the 2013 world championships in Rio when they decided to escape. Misenga, had seen his mother murdered when he was six years old before fleeing into the rainforest to avoid fighting in his hometown of Kisangani. Rescued a week later, he went on to learn judo at a home in the capital, Kinshasa, which is exactly how Mabika had taken up the sport when she, too, was evacuated to the same city. But life on the DR Congo judo team offered little respite from hardships at home. Both athletes say their coaches would assault them and hold them in cage-like cells if they lost. Sometimes, there would be no food.

From Kakuma to Rio

Five of the 10 athletes grew up in Kenya’s vast Kakuma refugee camp. Yiech Pur Biel, a refugee from South Sudan had been in the camp for a decade. Despite having no shoes at the camp – he will now race for the refugee team in Rio. Joining him is James Chiengjiek, who fled South Sudan to avoid becoming a child soldier in a decades-long civil war that claimed millions of lives – he arrived at Kakuma in 2002. And Paulo Lokoro, who left South Sudan to join his mother at Kakuma in 2004. Anjelina Nadai Lohalith who begun living in Kakuma at the age of six, will be joined by Rose Lokonyen on the team. Lokonyen was a resident at Kakuma for over a decade.

Strangely, the place these refugees called their new home for many years, and is holding more than 180,000 people – roughly the size of Swindon in the United Kingdom or Salt Lake City in United States, may soon be wiped off the map itself. Kenya says it will soon close Kakuma due to national security concerns, although it has not specified a date and it’s not clear what will happen to the residents.

The countries that the refugee Olympic team are originally from continue to be on a list of countries around world, facing ongoing violence and conflicts. And as a result these conflicts continue to lead to massive killings, destroy homes, displace people; and divide families, as they flee a war. And more commonly, conflicts are among the main driving forces why adults and children are joining and forcibly recruited into armed conflict groups.

The Olympic refugee team is an inspiration and demonstration of the power of individual action, but it is also a testimony to how much work is still needed to help prevent violence and war.  Peace Direct believes local people have the power to bring peace to their communities, if they have the support and resources they need. For example, through Peace Direct’s efforts and various partners, such as Centre Résolution Conflits, 1,500 child soldiers have been rescued in DR Congo. And through Aware Girls, nearly 4,000 children, through youth training activities, have been prevented from joining armed conflicts groups, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The rescuing and preventing children opens new doors for children to be able to explore various life changing opportunities, just like in the case of the refugees in the 2016 Olympics.

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