IOC’s Powerful Decision to Create The Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes

Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes
Ten refugees have been selected to form the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team.  © UNHCR

Nearly 60 million people in the world are considered refugees. If refugees were considered a sovereign nation, it would be the 22nd largest country in the world, in between France and Italy. But in France and Italy, its citizens live in relative safety and freedom. In the nation of Refugee, citizens live in perpetual instability, with little choice where they can reside.

To highlight the plight of refugees globally, the International Olympic Committee, in partnership with the United Nations Human Refugee Agency (UNHCR) made a wonderful decision to include a team of stateless athletes, to be called the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes. They include a Syrian swimmer living in Brazil, and another living in Germany, two judoka from the Republic of Congo both now living in Brazil, a marathon runner from Ethiopia training in Luxembourg, and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan, who all live and run in Kenya.

Over 5 million people have perished in the ongoing civil wars in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yolande Mabika was separated from her parents in the midst of fighting. Orphaned she ran the streets alone as a young child, until she was picked up, put in a helicopter and placed in an institution for displaced children in the capital of Kinshasa. She learned judo, and became so good that she was selected to represent her country at the World Judo Championship in Rio de Janeiro, where, outside of the competition, she was held in captivity by her own coach. Having had enough, she left the hotel started her life as a refugee in Brazil.

With the advent of the Arab Spring, Syria began its descent into a long, cold winter. Since the Spring of 2011, the Syrian government has lost control of half of its country, fighting a long and bloody fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), creating millions of refugees in the process. Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini was in a boat with 20 other Syrians attempting to flee the murderous chaos of their country for what they hoped was safety across the Mediterranean Sea. But their rickety boat was taking on water. Mardina jumped in the water with her sister Sarah, and pushed the boat to Greece. Finally finding asylum in Berlin, Germany, Mardini is training for the 200-meter freestyle event in Rio.

South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, after decades of civil wars. Unfortunately violence due to ethnic conflict has continued, displacing anywhere from 20 to 50,000 people. James Nyang Chiengjiek escaped South Sudan at the age of 13 to avoid being forcibly recruited as a child soldier in one of the various militias involved in the conflict. He became a teenage refugee in a Kenyan camp. And when he joined a school that had a strong group of teenage long-distance runners, Chiengjiek realized he had a gift. “That’s when I realised I could make it as a runner – and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it,” he says in this summary of all 10 members of the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes.

At the Rio Olympics this summer, Chiengjiek will be running in the 800-meter competition, no longer running away from his troubles, but towards a future of hope.

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