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Team Refugee to debut at Rio Olympics

In an unprecedented move, 10 refugees from four countries — Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — will compete on a team of their own in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The International Olympic Committee on Friday revealed the names of the athletes who will join the first ever multinational refugee team. They include two swimmers, two judo fighters, one marathoner and five short-distant runners.

“When it comes to sport, there is no difference between a refugee or a Syrian,” Rami Anis, a 24-year-old Syrian swimmer on Team Refugee, said in an IOC statement. “When it comes to sport, you just have to compete to be at the top.”

The IOC said its main priority is assisting the athletes that need it most, and to place them on equal footing with their competitors in more developed regions of the world. As of June 2015, there are 59.5 million displaced people around the world, 19.5 million refugees, and 10 million stateless people, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Among those competing is 17-year-old Yusra Mardini, who fled from Syria to Turkey and then to Lesbos. When the boat she was traveling on with 20 other people started taking on water, Mardini and her sister got into the water and swam the vessel to safety. Mardini is currently training in Berlin.

Popole Misenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judo athlete, trains during a session at the Reacao Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1, 2016. Photo by Pilar Olivares/REUTERS

Popole Misenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judo athlete, trains during a session at the Reacao Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1, 2016. Photo by Pilar Olivares/REUTERS

Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika both fled from Democratic Republic of the Congo three years ago and found asylum in Brazil. The duo will compete in judo in the Olympic Games. Both told the Guardian that judo helped them forget the horror of war and the sadness of leaving families and loved ones behind.

“I have to fight well to take this opportunity that the Olympics gave me,” Misenga said in the Guardian. “I’m going to fight for my home.”

Yonas Kinde is the team’s only long-distance runner. The 36-year-old marathoner from Ethiopia, who now lives in Luxembourg, qualified for the Rio Olympics in October 2015 during the Frankfurt Marathon.

But half of the athletes on Team Refugee will be short-distance runners from South Sudan who are now training in Kenya. Yiech Pur Biel, 21, James Nyang Chiengjiek, 28, Anjelina Nada Lohalith, 21, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, and Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24, were all refugees at Kakuma Camp that houses approximately 300,000 refugees in northwest Kenya.

For all the struggles these refugees have faced, Chiengjiek said he hopes to give back in honor of those who helped him get to the Olympics.

“My dream is to help people,” Chiengjiek said. “Without support I cannot be so because I’ve been supported by someone, I want to be able to support someone.”

At the games, the team will enter the stadium carrying the Olympic flag as their symbol, and the Olympic Anthem will be played at medal ceremonies.

The IOC said it will pay for the team’s expenses for travel and uniforms. The coaches will be provided as part of its pledge to aid potential elites athletes affected by the worldwide refugee crisis.

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