Rio’s Summer 2016 games have begun! This year the first team in Olympic history comprised of refugees will be competing. Ten athletes were chosen out of 43 candidates – six men and four women from Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria. Last night at the opening ceremony they received a standing ovation.
The ethos behind the Olympic games states: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
War disrupts the practice of many things far more basic than the practice of sport — life being among the most precious. The latest estimate of lives lost to the Syrian war alone is over 400,000.
The refugee team is a fierce and brave crew of men and women, some who represent wars and struggles that may no longer be at the forefront of our news sources, but are still very much ongoing. Since 1983, the Sudanese First and Second Civil Wars have taken the lives of an estimated 2 million civilians.
While other nations represented on the refugee team, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, are currently in and out of varying states of war and peace — a result of continuing internal conflict exacerbated by rebel groups and corrupt leaders both internally and abroad. The devastation in the Congo has estimated loss of over 5.4 million human lives — making it the deadliest war since World War II.
Another ethos of the Olympic Games offers up sport “…at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
As much as the games are about nations–it’s also about the notion of no borders. It’s about the truth that each individual embodies a unique reflection of greatness worthy of being witnessed and saluted – Olympian or not. Each time the Olympics adjourn, it is an opportunity to celebrate the world and its people. It’s an epic melding of spirit and sweat, and a blurring of borders.
This year’s first ever Refugee Team encourages us to look at the human face of these wars and to stand up and cheer for each person’s right to human dignity.
Meet the 2016 Refugee Team:
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, (28-years-old) competing in judo, originally from Democratic Republic of the Congo. Born in Bukavu, DRC, Yolande sought asylum when the war stopped her from training and competing as a judoka. applied for asylum in Brazil, where In 2013 she had traveled World Judo Championship in Rio de Janeiro and applied for assylum. She now lives in Rio and trains at the Instituto Reação. She tells refugees, “not to give up on hope and to keep believing, to have faith in their hearts.” *Yolande’s photo is featured as our lead image for this story to show a human face to the estimated 5.4 million lives lost to the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rami Anis: (25-years-old), competing in the area of swimming, originally from Syria. Rami was already an internationally competitive swimmer in Syria when war broke out. At just 20 years old Rami and his family began the journey to find refuge from the war. From Turkey they eventually crossed the Aegean Sea on a rubber boat to Greece. When they arrived they made another long journey overland until finding refuge in Belgium where they currently live. His special event is the 100m butterfly. He beautiful symbol of the freedom and the power of the human spirit to metamorphosis in the face of any obstacle.
Yiech Pur Biel: (21-years-old), competing in short distance running, originally from South Sudan. In 2005 he escaped war torn South Sudan on foot, running barefoot to a camp in Kenya. He has been living in Kenya ever since. His trip to Rio was his first ever trip off the continent of Africa.
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith: (21-years-old), competing as a middle distance runner, originally from South Sudan. Anjelina fled South Sudan in 2002 and settled in a refugee camp in Kenya called Kakuma — the same camp where fellow South Sudan teammate Yiech Pur Biel found refuge. She had to leave her siblings and parents behind, and hasn’t had any contact with them since.
Popole Misenga: (24-years-old), competing in judoka, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Popole has been living in Rio and training with fellow teammate Yolande Mabika since 2013. Also from Bukavu, a part of the DRC particularly ravaged by war, Popole’s mother was killed and his brother went missing – leaving him alone in his search for refuge. Of the opportunity to compete in this years’ games Misenga says, “I’m going to fight for my home.”
Rose Nathike Lokonyen (23-years-old), competing as a short distance runner, originally from South Sudan. In 2002 Rose and her family escaped the war in South Sudan to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Her parents have since returned to Sudan, but Rose and her siblings stayed in Kenya. Rose eventually moved to Nairobi where she trains as a short distance runner.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro: (24-years old), competing as a medium distance runner, originally from South Sudan. “As a child, he used to look after cattle for his family, and remained in his village even after his parents fled the war, until he escaped with an uncle and his sister. His journey was through the forest, he says, without food other than some fruit. He reached Kakuma refugee camp, where his mother had been living since 2004, in 2006.”
James Nyang Chiengjiek: (28-years-old), competing as a short distance runner, originally from South Sudan. James, like Paulo, also looked after cattle as a boy in his South Sudanese town, Bentiu. “After his father, a soldier, died in 1999, he remained with his mother but eventually had to flee, risking being taken as a child soldier to fight the war. He arrived in Kakuma refugee camp in 2002, and remained there until he moved to Nairobi in 2013 to train as a short distance runner with the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. He is especially grateful for the people who helped him get this far.” He says, “Because I’ve been supported by someone, I want to be able to support someone.”
Yonas Kinde: (36-years-old), competing as a marathoner, originally from Ethiopia. Yonas ran away from Ethiopia in 2013 and has been in Luxembourg under international protection ever since. Before the refugee team was created, Yonas couldn’t participate in important sporting events.