Meet the 10 Athletes Selected to be 'A Symbol of Hope for Refugees Worldwide' as the Olympics First All-Refugee Team
"If I win, my medal will be [for] all the refugees," says team member Popole Misenga
The six men and four women selected are from from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia and will compete in swimming, track and field, and judo.
The International Olympic Committee said Friday that they hoped the team would serve as a “symbol of hope” for millions of displaced people worldwide and bring global attention to the 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.”
“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society,” Bach continued.
Forty-three athletes were considered for the team and the 10 that made it were selected based on sporting ability, personal background, and United Nations refugee status.
Here are the ten inspiring athletes who made the cut.
Yusra Mardini, 17, swimmer from Syria.
Mardini and older sister Sarah fled Syria in August and boarded an inflatable boat headed from Turkey to Lesbos. When the boat carrying 20 people began taking on water, the two sisters jumped out and clung to its side, furiously kicking to safety, the Associated Press reported. “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.
The sisters eventually made it to Austria and then Germany before moving into a refugee shelter in Berlin. There, a local charity put them in touch with a nearby swimming club. Mardini was selected to participate in the 100m freestyle. “I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days,” she said. “I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”
Yiech Pur Biel, a 21-year-old runner from Kenya.
Biel fled Nasir, South Sudan alone as a teen to escape Sudan’s bloody civil war in 2005. He ended up in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp where he said running gave him a sense of belonging, according to a video produced by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Biel, who began running competitively just one year ago, said he sees his participation in the Games as a chance to be an ambassador for refugees everywhere. “Even if I will not get gold or silver I will show the world that being a refugee, you can do something,” he said.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, 28, Judoka from the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mabika was orphaned by the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, still she reached the highest level of her sport there, representing the DRC in international Judo competitions. She and her teammate Popole Misenga sought asylum in Brazil while competing in the World Judo Championships in Rio in 2013. “Judo gives me a strong heart,” she said. “I started Judo to make my life better, to change my life, because I searched for my family for so long,” she said.
James Nyang Chiengjiek, 28, runner from South Sudan
Chiengjiek, from Bentiu South Sudan lost his father in the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1999. He fled South Sudan as a teenager in 2002 to escape the war and began running at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp where he trained despite the fact that he didn’t have shoes . “[When] you realize that you have that talent, you keep in fighting,” he said.
Yonas Kinde, 36, runner from Ethiopia
Kinde, a marathoner from Ethiopia, sought asylum in Luxembourg in 2013. He reached the qualifying standards for Rio during the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2015, according to his official bio. “I can’t explain the feeling, it’s like power, it’s amazing,” he said of being chosen to participate in the Olympics.
Anjaline Nadai Lohalith, 21, runner from South Sudan
Lohalith fled the war in Sudan with her aunt and arrived at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in 2002. She ran competitively in high school and will compete in the 1500-meter race, according to her official bio
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, runner from South Sudan
Lokonyen fled the war in South Sudan as a child and arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in 2002. Her parents returned to South Sudan in 2008, leaving Lokonyen and her siblings at the refugee camp. She said she sees her role in the Olympics as a way to help inspire peace, according to a video from the UNHCR.
Rami Anis, a 25-year-old swimmer from Syria.
Anis was a competitive swimmer in Syria until he and his family fled the country in 2011 to avoid the then 20-year-old’s likely conscription into the army. After living in Istanbul the family moved to Belgium in 2015 where Anis has been training for the men’s 100-butterfly event, according to his official bio.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24, runner from South Sudan
Lokoro fled the war in South Sudan in 2006, joining his mother at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. He soon joined the camp’s running program and was selected to compete in the 1500m. He said he hopes his participation will inspire others. “If you just raise the flag of the refugees and show them that I’m one of the refugees in the camp there and I’m somewhere now,” he said.
Popole Misenga, 24, Judoko from the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Misenga was displaced by the fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and sought asylum with his teammate Mabika in Brazil while competing in the World Judo Championships in Rio in 2013. “I want to represent all the refugees of the world,” he said. “If I win, my medal will be [for] all the refugees.”
Officially called the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), the ten athletes will enter the opening ceremony just ahead of host-country Brazil and walk under the Olympic flag. The ROT will be treated as all other teams with their expenses paid by the IOC.
In the midst of a global refugee crisis, Bach said that he hopes the team will show the humanity and potential of the some 20 million people around the world who have been displaced from their home countries.
“These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” IOC president Thomas Bach said.