Meet the refugees carrying the Olympic flame
As children Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga fled the deadliest war in Africa’s history. Today they compete for Olympic medals as part of the Games’ first ever Refugee Team.
Rebels killed the mother of Popole Misenga when he was just nine years old. Living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the midst of its bloody civil war, he was forced to run away to the capital. He slept on the city’s streets until he found an orphanage, and it was there that he was introduced to judo — and he excelled at it. ‘People who like judo are calm, with respect for other people,’ he says.
As an adult he began to compete in national competitions. But his coaches were brutal: when athletes lost fights, they were locked up and starved as punishment. So when he arrived in Rio for the 2013 world championships, he and his teammate Yolande Mabika escaped and applied for asylum.
Today they will make their Olympic debut in their adopted city. But they will not be fighting for Brazil or the DRC — they are part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, a small band of ten athletes representing the world’s 21m refugees.
Their teammates all have their own harrowing stories. Five escaped from South Sudan, which the UN describes as ‘one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world.’ Marathoner Yonas Kinde ran from Ethiopia. Two swimmers, Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, fled Syria; en route to Greece 18-year-old Mardini had to swim for three hours to help push the overcrowded dinghy to safety.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants to highlight this kind of bravery with its historic team; the IOC president said they will ‘show the world that anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills, and strength of the human spirit’. The team could not have been formed at a more crucial time. Over 1m refugees entered Europe last year. Worldwide, 65m people have been forced from their homes, a number increasing by 34,000 every day.
‘I want everyone to think that refugees are normal humans,’ says Mardini. ‘We can’t let them down.’
‘At this moment we are their light,’ agrees Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, a 1,500 metre runner. ‘Wherever they are, at least they will now have some encouragement and know: we can do something. Wherever they are, they are human beings. They are not animals. That’s why we have been given this chance.’ The Refugee Team is a powerful reminder of sport at its best: as a true celebration of the human spirit.
‘But is it really enough?’ ask some. Few can criticise the IOC for supporting these ten inspiring individuals. But will the millions they represent really benefit? Refugees in the most desperate situations are unlikely to know they exist, let alone be able to watch them compete. In truth, this team is a way of making the rest of the world feel better about something they should be ashamed of.
- Will watching refugees compete change people’s minds about the crisis?
- When Pierre de Coubertin proposed reviving the Olympic Games in the 19th century, he hoped it would promote peace. Has it worked?
- The refugees entered the opening ceremony under the official Olympic flag on Friday. Design a flag which represents the other 21m refugees around the world.
- Research another inspiring Olympic athlete from history. (If you are stuck, there are some examples in the final link under Become An Expert.) Write a short biography of their life.
Some People Say...
“Sport is a unique tool to improve society.”Pere Miró, Deputy Director General for Relations with the Olympic Movement
What do you think?
Q & A
- Is anything going to change?
- It is doubtful that the world’s refugee policies will suddenly change. But hosting a Refugee Team is hugely symbolic for the Olympics, and the Games are no stranger to political symbolism. For example, in 1936 the African-American runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals in defiance of that year’s host: Hitler’s Third Reich.
- How were the refugees chosen?
- The IOC asked countries to nominate potential candidates — that is how Yusra Mardini and Popole Misenga were selected. The five South Sudanese athletes were found in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which holds around 185,000 people. They were trained by the Kenyan marathon runner Tegla Laroupe, who runs a training centre in the country. The final list was chosen based on ability and personal circumstances.
- Civil war
- Beginning in 1998 the DRC civil war, sometimes described as ‘Africa’s world war’, killed more than 5.4m people, making it the bloodiest conflict since the second world war. Although a peace agreement was signed in 2002, there is still violence in some parts of the country.
- Ten athletes
- The runners were found through a lengthy trial process in Africa’s refugee camps. The final ten were selected from a shortlist of 43 athletes.
- 21m refugees
- According to the UNHCR, more than half of these are aged under 18, and 54% are from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria.
- South Sudan
- A country formed just five years ago to end the civil war in Sudan; however, another civil war was fought between 2013 and 2015, and violence began again last month.
- Since 2011 some estimate the civil war in Syria has killed over 400,000 people and created almost 5m refugees. (See The Day’s report on Aleppo via Become An Expert.)
- 65m people
- Reported by the UNHCR in June, a record high; around two-thirds are displaced within their own countries, meaning they are not technically refugees.