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The team is made up of runners, swimmers and judo athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It includes an 18-year-old woman who swam for her life through the Aegean Sea during her escape from Syria and a Congolese man who spent eight days as a young child hiding in a forest to flee fighting. The group will compete in a total of 12 events.
The audience in the Maracana Stadium was moved enough to greet the team with a roar and a standing ovation as they entered the stadium clad in blue blazers and khaki pants and waving the five-ring Olympic flag. The crowd’s enthusiasm over their arrival was rivaled only by that for the Brazilian squad.
The moment was bittersweet for some of the athletes, unable to compete under the national flags of beloved homelands.
“I will raise the Olympic flag, but I’m a little bit sad in my heart and mind because I cannot march under the flag of my country,” said judoka Yolande Mabika, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio.
But her teammate, countrymate and fellow judoka, Popole Misenga, who sought asylum in Brazil at the same time, sees a greater purpose in their presence at the games.
“We’re fighting for all the refugees in the world,” he said. “I’m not sad that I’m not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”
Indeed, that is what the International Olympic Committee had in mind when it came up with the idea.
“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the team’s announcement.
“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.”
The IOC provided coaches and travel expenses.
A unifying force
At least during the opening ceremonies, the team’s presence at the games had the desired effect as fans around the world came together in their support for them, sending positive messages on social media.
As is surely the case for many of their competitors, the Olympic events surely won’t be the most trying ordeal the refugee team members have endured.
Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister spent a month travelling from their hometown of Damascus to reach Germany, going through Beirut to Izmir, Turkey, where they boarded a rubber dinghy headed for Lesbos, Greece. Along the way the motor broke and the two sisters and another young woman jumped in the water and brought the boat and the 19 other refugees in it to safety.
The sisters then crossed on foot and by train through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, before finally arriving in Germany, where they were granted refugee status.
“When I was in the water there was fear. You don’t know whether you are going to live or die,” 18-year-old Mardini said in a video interview published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “When I was swimming for my life, I never would have believed I would be where I am now.”
Congolese Misenga was only nine-years-old when he was separated from his family when they were fleeing fighting in the DRC. Terrified, he hid in the jungle for eight days before being rescued and taken to a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa.
That was 15 years ago, but the pain of the ordeal hovers near the surface. He broke down in tears when asked about the message he hoped to send through his participation.
“I have two brothers that I haven’t seen for years,” he said tearfully. “I don’t know how they look anymore because we were separated since we were small. So I send hugs and kisses to my brothers.”
Wiping his eyes, the 24-year-old athlete delivered a message for his family: “If you can see me on television now, you can see that your brother is here in Brazil and alive and well.”
“This is not just a struggle for sport it’s a struggle for life,” his teammate Mabika said. “Each one of us had our own personal stories to tell.”
The other members of the team are Rami Anis, a 25-year-Syrian who left the country to avoid military service; Yiech Pur Biel, a 21-year-old South Sudanese runner who lived in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya; another South Sudanese runner, 28-year-old James Nyang Chiengjiek, who also sought refuge in Kakuma; Ethopian marathoner Yonas Kinde, 36; South Sudanese runner Anjaline Nadai Lohalith, a 21-year-old who escaped the war with her aunt in 2002; 23-year-old South Sudanese runner Rose Nathike Lokonyen, and Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24, who also fled to Kakuma from South Sudan.
Every member of the team has already proven his or her strength, but can they win? Coach Geraldo Bernardes said the question is immaterial.
“People ask if they can win a medal. I say they have already won their medals just by getting to Rio,” he said.