The 2016 Summer Olympic Games this year has provided a chance for a small group of ten refugees from several countries to compete. This feat was orchestrated to spread awareness about the current global refugee crisis. Those who compete within the refugee team are truly amazing people, and all of whom have their own stories to tell.
Event: Men’s 400m heats
Date of Event: Sunday, August 14
James Chiengjiek is a refugee from South Sudan, and was part of a migration of children from South Sudan to Kenya known as the “Lost Children of Sudan” (a few other refugee team members were also a part of this movement). Chiengjiek fled South Sudan in order to aviod being recruited as a child soldier in the civil war. He had to walk many dangerous miles to reach a refugee camp, where he discovered his talent for running.
The particular camp where Chiengjiek stayed was renowned for its talented runners. Chiengjiek started running after a while in the camp, and recalled, “That’s when I realized I could make it as a runner — and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it.”
Many runners in Kenya have no choice but to run without shoes. “We all of us got a lot of injuries because of the wrong shoes that we had. Then we were sharing. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.” said Chiengjiek in regard to the runners in his camp.
Event: Men’s 800m heats
Date of Event: Friday, August 12
Yiech Biel, another “lost child” from South Sudan, has been living in a refugee camp for the past ten years. Biel is a resident of the Kakuma refugee camp, which hosts nearly 185,000 refugees and is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Biel has only just started running competitively within the last year. Kenya provides difficult training conditions, as Biel puts it, “In the refugee camp we have no facilities — even shoes we don’t have. There is no gym. Even the weather does not favor training because from morning until every evening it is sunny and hot.”
Biel believes that his presence in the Olympics will inspire other refugees to never lose hope, stating, “Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something.”
Event: Men’s 1500m heats
Date of Event: Tuesday, August 16
Paulo Lokoro is a refugee from South Sudan, and fled to meet his parents in Kenya after civil war broke out. Lokoro had very little when he left for Kenya, and only had fruit to eat while he traveled and had no shoes. Lokoro wishes to beat a record this year, stating that “to win a medal, a gold, that is my dream.”
Lokoro, like the other athletes on his team, has worked very hard to be able to compete in Rio. “Before I came here I did not even have training shoes. Now we have trained and trained, until we see ourselves at a good level.”
Event: Men’s Marathon
Date of Event: Sunday, August 21
Yonas Kinde is a refugee who fled from Ethiopia, and is now under international protection in Luxembourg. Kinde describes the hostilities in Ethiopia as, “It’s impossible for me to live there.It’s very dangerous for my life… At the beginning, I didn’t realize the refugee life was like this. It was difficult for the moment. The other side is we are free here. There are some problems with the refugee situation but I remember I have a big change from before and it’s very good.”
Kinde has already won several awards for his athletic accomplishments in Luxembourg. Though, Kinde says that it is still very hard for refugees to be credited for their athletics at times, saying “I’ve won many races but I didn’t have a nationality to participate in the Olympic Games or the European championships. It’s very good news for refugee athletes that Olympic Solidarity has given us this chance to participate here.”
Results: Won the opening opening match against India’s Avtar Singh, but then lost by ippon to South Korea’s Gwak Dong-han.
Popole Misenga is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was found roaming the rainforest when he was six years old and taken back the country’s capital. Misenga’s home town was one of the cities which was involved in the Second War of the Congo, which officially lasted from 1998 to 2003. Misenga, along with his friend and teammate Yolande Mabika, decided to seek asylum in Brazil during its 2013 world judo championship.
Results: 54.25 seconds in heats, finishing 56th out of 59 participants. In the 100m butterfly, he timed in at 56.23 seconds, and finished 40th out of 43 participants.
Rami Anis is a refugee from Syria who has found asylum in Germany. Anis fled his country in 2015 and traveled by boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey, before arriving at Belgium. “It’s a wonderful feeling to compete in the Olympics. I don’t want to wake up from this dream,” says Anis, “I want to show the best possible images of refugees or Syrian people, or anyone who has suffered injustice in the world, and tell them not to lose hope.”
Event: Women’s 800m heats
Date of Event: Wednesday, August 17
Rose Lokonyen is a refugee from South Sudan who was a part of the “Lost Children of Sudan” migration. Lokonyen was ten years old when her family had to flee to escape the violent conflict of the civil war. She hopes to help others by participating in the Olympics, saying “My dream, my first priority, is to help my parents and my siblings and then after that to help my fellow refugees.”
Lokonyen did not believe that she was accepted into the Olympics at first, as she recalls “It was just a competition, we competed among the refugees. Some of us were running without shoes, like me, I was running barefoot. We ran 10km and I became the number two.” Lokonyen wants to return to Kenya after the Olympics and plans to conduct her own runs to “promote peace and bring people together.”
Event: Women’s 1500m heats
Date of Event: Saturday, August 13
Anjelina Nadai is a refugee from South Sudan who fled to Kenya when she was six years old. She was separated from her family when she fled from South Sudan, and hopes that participating in the Olympics will provide a means of reuniting with her family. “Since I came from there to here, I have never communicated with them.” she said.
Nadai, along with her friend Rose Lokonyen, was surprized that she was recruited to the Olympic team. “It came as a surprize.” she said, “When I was in primary school I used to do it for fun. But during the selection it was just like a trial, but suddenly they say ‘you will be going to training here.’”
Nadia wishes to help others with her role in the Olympics, saying “I’m happy because it will be the first time refugees are represented in the Olympics. It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just ‘other people’. They will have that encouragement that they can compete anyway.”
Results: Knocked out in the first round against Israel’s Linda Bolder.
Yolande Mabika fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago to seek asylum in Brazil. Mabika remembers being separated from her family when she was young and was taken to the capital in a helicopter. Mabika was then taken to the center for displaced children where she was introduced to judo. “Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart. I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started judo to have a better life.”
Results: Won her Women’s 100m butterfly heat, but was not fast enough to progress in the 100m butterfly or the 100m freestyle.
Yusra Mardini is a refugee from Syria, and is the youngest competitor in the Refugee Olympic Team at 18 years old. Mardini escaped the civil war in Syria, but was well known in her group of refugees after she (along with others including her older sister) saved a small dingy filled with 20 people from sinking in the Mediterranean Sea. The motor on the dingy quit when the Mardini’s group was half an hour from the shore. Mardini hopped in the water with a handful of other people and began tugging the boat through freezing waters. It took Mardini and the others three and a half hours to reach shore. “Swimming in open water stopped being fun after that.” Mardini said. Though she still maintained a sense of humor, “I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea because I’m a swimmer.”
Mardini then walked a 1,000 mile journey until she reached Germany. The road was hard, but Mardini remained undeterred. “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them, not because they wanted to run away and be refugees.” she said.
We wish every competitor success in this competition and beyond as they face challenges that in many ways are far harder than any athlete faces in competition. In a way, the Olympic Refugee Team will be winning more than just medals this year, they will also win a victory in the pursuit for world peace.
Information used in this article was gathered from the International Olympic Committee and the BBC.