First-Ever Refugee Team Joins Summer Olympics

Photo by IOC/David Burnett/Contact Press Images

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The first-ever Olympic team of international refugee athletes, representing over 65 million refugees worldwide, poses together before participating in the summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The first-ever Olympic team of international refugee athletes, representing over 65 million refugees worldwide, poses together before participating in the summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by IOC/David Burnett/Contact Press Images

For many athletes, the summer games now underway in Rio de Janeiro represent the culmination of all their training—the greatest opportunity to put their skills to the test.

For 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, it’s not even close to her greatest challenge.

Yusra is a refugee. And while thousands of athletes proudly march into the opening ceremony under the flags of their nations, to the triumphant strains of their national anthem, Yusra, pronounced “EES-rah,” is part of a small team of 10 stateless, international refugees who have fled their homes, chased by war, strife and disaster. But they have not abandoned their dreams. These athletes have banded together to compete against the world’s best, representing the aspirations of tens of millions of displaced people worldwide. It is the first time the Olympics has included a team of refugees.

Five team members are currently residing in Kenya, a country long served by Catholic Relief Services. Kenya is currently housing over a half million refugees and fellow refugees from the Kakuma camp in particular will be following the athletes’ progress closely.

Yusra herself has traveled through eight different countries since fleeing her native Syria. That alone is a greater challenge than any teenager should have to overcome. But her story is even more remarkable: Last summer she helped save the lives of 20 refugees by jumping out of the sinking, powerless dinghy that was transporting the group, and towing them to safety for more than three grueling hours.

As a talented young swimmer in Damascus, Yusra enjoyed the opportunity to train under the support of Syrian officials. But as conflict escalated, her training locations changed. She often worked out in pools in partially destroyed buildings with holes in the roof.

Syrian refugee and world-class swimmer Yusra Mardini.
Syrian refugee and world-class swimmer Yusra Mardini. Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC
Eventually, the situation became untenable for Yusra’s family. Their home was destroyed, and she and her sister Sarah were forced to flee—first to Lebanon, and then to Turkey. From there they joined a party of 20, setting out for Greece in a boat made for six. When the engine failed 30 minutes into the trip, a quick poll of the passengers revealed that only four of them could swim—Yusra and Sarah among them. They dove into the sea and, over the next several hours, the swimmers pushed and pulled until the boat struck ground at the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm, Yusra says. It was 3 1/2 hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”

Ultimately, Yusra would travel through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and eventually stop in Germany. She traveled a well-worn path along which CRS has assisted more than 1 million war-affected Syrians. Despite now living in a refugee camp in Berlin, Yusra has returned to her training in earnest. But what victory for a teenager can top putting your training on the line to save yourself, your sister and 18 others? How many athletes can look back on their training the way she can?

“I remember that without swimming I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat,” Yusra says. It’s a positive memory for me."

It has been said that the glory of athletics is the human person pushing to the threshold of his or her limits, and then beyond. For love of her family and her neighbor, Yusra did just that—reaching beyond limits, and revealing a glory that no medal can truly represent. In her, we see the everyday struggle, the hope, the aspiration, and the heroism of the refugees we have met in our work.

Sources:
Official site of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees: www.UNHCR.org
Official site of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games: www.rio2016.com/

<b>Rami Amis<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Swimming (100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> Syria<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Belgium<br />Photo by IOC
"I wish from my heart that there will be no more refugees and we can go back and participate for our country."  Photo by IOC
<b>Yiech Pur Biel<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Track and Field (800 m)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> South Sudan<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Kenya<br />Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
“Most of us face a lot of challenges. In the refugee camp, we have no facilities—even shoes we don’t have. There is no gym. Even the weather does not favor training because from morning up to the evening it is so hot and sunny.” Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
<b>James Chiengjiek<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Track & Field (400m)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> South Sudan<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Kenya<br />Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
 “My dream is to get good results at the Olympics and also to help people. Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone.” Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
<b>Yonas Kinde<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Track and Field (marathon)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> Ethiopia<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Luxomborg<br />Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
“I think it will be the big message that refugees, young athletes, they can do their best. Of course we have problems—we are refugees—but we can do everything in the refugee camp, so it will help refugee athletes.” Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
<b>Rose Nathike Lokonyen<br />Sport:</b> Women’s Track and Field (800 m)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> South Sudan<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Kenya<br />Photo by IOC
“I will be representing my people there at Rio, and maybe if I succeed I can come back and conduct a race that can promote peace, and bring people together.” Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
<b>Paulo Amotun Lokoro<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Track and Field (1500 m)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> South Sudan<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Kenya<br />Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
“I am so happy. I know I am racing on behalf of refugees. I was one of those refugees in the camp and now I have reached somewhere special. If I perform well, I will use that to help support my family and my people.” Photo by IOC/Claire Thomas
<b>Yusra Mardini<br />Sport:</b> Women’s Swimming (100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> Syria<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Germany<br />Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images  For IOC
“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.” Photo by I.O.C./ David Burnett/ Contact Press
<b>Yolande Bukasa Mabika<br />Sport:</b> Women’s Judo (70 kg)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> Democratic Republic of the Congo<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Brazil<br />Photo by IOC/Douglas Engle
“Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart. I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started judo to have a better life.”  Photo by IOC/Douglas Engle
<b>Popole Misenga<br />Sport:</b> Men’s Judo (90 kg)<br /><b>Native Country:</b> Democratic Republic of the Congo<br /><b>Host Country:</b> Brazil<br />Photo by IOC/Douglas Engle
“We're fighting for all the refugees in the world. I'm not sad that I'm not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”  Photo by IOC/Douglas Engle

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