First Olympic refugee team a ‘symbol of hope’ in Rio

Marching just before Brazil’s contingent at the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games will be a special group of athletes.

Ten refugees from Africa and the Middle East will enter Rio’s Maracanã Stadium on August 5 to compete under the Olympic flag.

The first-ever Olympic refugee team includes athletes from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, competing in track and field, swimming and judo.

“We’re convinced this refugee Olympic team can send a symbol of hope to all refugees in the world,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” he continued. “Despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Perilous journeys

 Yusra Mardini in a pool (© AP Images)
Syrian refugee athlete Yusra Mardini at a training session in Berlin (© AP Images)

Yusra Mardini, a teenage Syrian swimmer, and her sister, Sarah, were making the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece on a flimsy inflatable boat with 20 other refugees when the overcrowded raft started taking on water. Most of the refugees couldn’t swim, but the two sisters leaped into the water to guide the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned at sea because I am a swimmer,” Mardini said.

The sisters eventually made it to Germany, where they began training at a swimming pool in Berlin.

“I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days,” she said. “I want to inspire them to do something good.”

In addition to Syrian swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, the team includes South Sudanese runners Yiech Pur Biel, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Anjelina Nada Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Paulo Amotun Lokoro; Congolese judo athletes Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga; and Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde.

The South Sudanese runners had been staying at the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya when they were selected as potential Olympic athletes.

The team will be overseen by Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe, the former women’s marathon world record-holder and the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon.

This article draws on reports from the Associated Press and Voice of America.

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