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All-new refugee team wins hearts, if not medals, at Rio Olympics

They may not be winning gold, but their stories are certainly medal worthy. The first-ever Refugee Olympic Team is competing in Rio, stacked with athletes like 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, who saved herself and other Syrians stranded during a dangerous Aegean crossing. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says that the team aims to counteract negative global sentiment toward refugees.

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    And we turn to another big story of these Games, away from the medal podiums.

    Across the globe today, there are some 65 million people who've been forced from their homes, an unprecedented number. Ten refugees are now on the world stage in Rio.

    He didn't win the 100 meter butterfly yesterday, not even close, but 25-year-old Rami Anis, a Syrian refugee now living in Belgium, did get a standing ovation; 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, also from Syria, won a preliminary heat in her race before failing to advance further. Still, by the very special terms she'd set for herself, this was a victory.

  • YUSRA MARDINI, Swimmer, Refugee Olympic Team:

    For the refugees in Brazil, and all the refugees around the world, we are going to represent you guys in a really good picture. And I hope you are going to learn from our story that you have to move on, because life will never stop with your problems or anything. And I hope that everyone will continue to achieve their dreams.


    Just last year, both Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis made the dangerous voyage across the Aegean Sea that's become a symbol of an international refugee crisis.

    On Mardini's trip, the motor failed and she and her sister, also a swimmer, were the only ones strong enough to swim the crowded boat to safety. One week ago, to a resounding welcome, the two young Syrians and eight other athletes made history as the first ever Refugee Olympic Team.

    Filippo Grandi, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, was there, and spoke with us yesterday from his Geneva headquarters.

    FILIPPO GRANDI, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: I was so nervous, like if I was going to give an exam, I can tell you. And we had to wait for the whole ceremony, because they were the last but one team to enter before the hosts, Brazil. And when they entered, the emotion was unlimited.


    The UNHCR worked with the International Olympic Commission to create the team, holding tryouts in refugee camps such as the huge Kakuma camp in Kenya. Those who made the cut got the help of world-class coaches to prepare for Rio.


    We started talking about that project in the midst of the most negative global discussion on refugees and migrants during the Europe crisis. So, it was really a reversal of that approach, that vision. It was positive. It emphasized achievement. It emphasized contributions by refugees.


    Five runners who fled war in South Sudan as children made it to Rio; 21-year-old Yiech Pur Biel made his Olympics debut this afternoon in the 800-meter competition.

    Anjelina Nadai Lohalith will run on Saturday in the 1,500 meter race; 28-year-old James Nyang Chiengjiek will run the 400-meter dash Saturday well. Paulo Lokoro, 24 years old, is a middle-distance runner who escaped the war in 2006. He runs next Tuesday. Rose Nathike Lokonyen made the team despite having to run barefoot in tryouts in the refugee camp.

  • ROSE NATHIKE LOKONYEN, Runner, Refugee Olympic Team:

    We compete among the refugees. Then it happened that some of us, we ran without shoe. Like me, I was just running barefoot.


    Filippo Grandi visited the five as they trained in Kenya, and it was there he became convinced this refugee team could both compete with world-class athletes, and have an impact beyond Rio.


    We knew that these were people coming from hardship, often living in difficult conditions in refugee camps, having gone through very difficult situations. So, for them to step up to those technical levels would be difficult.

    But we knew that would compensate by enthusiasm, by commitment, and by the strong message that they would bring to the Olympic Games.


    The oldest member of the refugee team is 36-year-old marathoner Yonas Kinde. He fled Ethiopia in 2013, and now has asylum in Luxembourg.

    And filling out the group, two refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who competed in judo earlier this week; 28-year-old Yolande Mabika lost her parents to war and first took up judo in a center for displaced children in Kinshasa. She lost her first-round match on Wednesday; 24-year-old Popole Misenga won his first bout before losing to a world champion from South Korea. Misenga's mother was killed when he was 9, and he's not seen his siblings since.

  • POPOLE MISENGA, Judo Fighter, Refugee Olympic Team  (through translator):

    I am here, in Brazil. I'm participating in the Olympics, and I thank God for that. If my brother can see me on TV,, to know your brother is here in Brazil, striving to maybe see him, be one day together, I send him hugs wherever he is, and I am thinking of him here in Brazil. And I hope to bring all my family close to me, to see them. It's been such a long time.


    The two judo competitors have received asylum in Brazil three years ago.

    The Olympic host nation, a land of immigrants, has welcomed many recent asylum-seekers. Hanan Dacka, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee, was chosen as an Olympic torchbearer in the capital city of Brasilia earlier this year. It was a symbolic moment greeted warmly by onlookers, just as an international audience has embraced the refugee athletes at the Rio Games.

    But will it last? Filippo Grandi hopes the world sees beyond these 10 to the millions of others.


    Refugees are not just a number, are not just 60 million people, all the same.

    Refugees, each refugee is an individual with a profoundly difficult personal history. And I hope that the personal histories of these 10 athletes will illustrate this important characteristic of refugees that is too often forgotten, because too often we concentrate on big numbers, on the consequences of flows of millions of people and the impact that they have. And we forget that each one of them is a person with a history that needs to be addressed individually as well.


    The hope, that is, is for an Olympic moment that goes beyond gold medals.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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