Ten athletes from four countries are representing the some 65-million displaced people around the world

By Tiare Dunlap
August 06, 2016 01:00 AM
YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty

The Olympic Games’ first-ever refugee team entered Friday’s opening ceremony to a standing ovation.

That’s because these athletes are representing the some 65-million forcibly displaced people around the world for the first time in the history of the Games.

The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) consists of 10 athletes who have been driven out of their home countries by violence. The team that was chosen by the International Olympic Committee includes athletes hailing from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The International Olympic Committee said that they hoped the team of six men and four women would serve as a “symbol of hope” for millions of displaced people worldwide and bring much-needed attention to the global refugee crisis.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a press release. “We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the word.”

Here are five things to know about the team:

1. Some team members have used their athletic abilities to save lives

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini was one of only three or four passengers who knew how to swim when the boat she, her sister and 18 other refugees had taken from the Turkish coast last summer stopped due to motor failure. So, Mardini jumped into the frigid waters, and along with her sister, swam while for hours to drag the boat to safety. “In Syria I worked in a swimming pool to watch people not drowning, so if I let anyone drown or die I would not forgive myself,” Mardini said.

2. Sports gave team members a reason to carry on

Runner James Nyang Chiengjiek was just 13 when he fled South Sudan to avoid being kidnapped and forced into becoming a child soldier, according to a profile on the Rio 2016 website. Having lost his father to civil war, he traveled thousands of miles and ended up in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

He began running with other children in the camp, and despite the fact that he didn’t have proper shoes, his talent was quickly noticed. “That’s when I realized I could make it as a runner – and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it,” he said.

3. They want to spread hope and awareness

Every member of the team wants to bring hope to his or her fellow refugees. “Even if I will not get gold or silver I will show the world that being a refugee, you can do something,” Yiech Pur Biel, a 21-year-old runner who fled Sudan’s bloody civil war as a teen said.

They also hope that everyone watching will recognize that refugees are just like everyone else. “I want everyone to think that refugees are normal humans who had homelands and who lost them,” Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who fled Syria a year ago said at a news conference Tuesday, according to USA Today. “Everyone is trying to get a new life, to get a better life. Everything that happened to the homelands of refugees, it could happen in your hometown.”

4. They’ve got some pretty powerful fans

Shortly before the start of the Games, Pope Francis sent the team a letter of encouragement.

“I extend my greetings and wish you success at the Olympic Games in Rio – that your courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity,” he wrote in a letter published by For he Win. “Through you may humanity understand that peace is possible, and that with peace everything is a triumph; while with war everything is a loss.”

President Barack Obama also sent a few kind words via Twitter during the Games’ opening ceremony.

5. Some team members hope their participation in the Games will help them locate their families.

Most of the athletes left their home countries alone or with a single family member, and many have not been able to locate their families since. Judoka Popole Misenga fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after his mother was killed in the deadliest conflict in modern African history. “I was nine,” Misenga recalled of the day he last laid eyes on his family 15 years ago, according to the Evening Standard. “My father went to work, my sister was at school and my mum got killed. I ran for days in the woods and was eventually rescued by Unicef.”

Misenga said he doesn’t know if any of his family is still alive, but if they are, he hopes they might see him on TV and find him. With tears in his eyes, Misenga shared a message in a press conference that he hoped would reach his family: ‘If you can see me on television now, you can see that your brother is here in Brazil and alive and well.’ He says if he is able to locate his family, he will fly them all to reunite in Brazil.

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