RIO DE JANEIRO — They had seen some of the darkest places on the planet. War zones in South Sudan. Bombed-out cities in Syria. Refugee camps in Kenya. Of all the places for these 10 athletes to come together, it was here, on a stage inside a makeshift conference center at the outset of the Olympics.

Journalists watched from the floor, thrusting microphones and cameras. They wore black track jackets with a small logo over their hearts, the letters R.O.T. emblazoned above Olympic rings. Their past, full of sorrow, brought them together. Their future, full of hope, united them.

“Guys,” Yusra Mardini said, “you want to do a selfie?”

Mardini, an 18-year-old swimmer from Syria, leaned back and pointed the camera. She locked arms with another Syrian swimmer and two middle-distance runners from South Sudan. Other teammates, athletes like them from war-stricken countries, laughed or spoke with reporters. The four faces in Mardini’s iPhone all beamed as she snapped a picture, another small moment within a major achievement.

For the first time, a refugee Olympic team will compete. It will be comprised of those two Syrian swimmers, an Ethiopian marathoner, two Congolese judokas and five South Sudanese middle-distance runners. They will represent more than 60 million refugees across the world, the highest total since World War II, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. They will provide a human story to a worldwide crisis. They will walk into Maracana Stadium under the same flag not as victims but as competitors.

“When they march into that stadium, there are 60 million people marching right behind them,” said a U.N. Foundation spokesman, Aaron Sherinian. “And the world needs to acknowledge those 60 million people.”


The International Olympic Committee formed the team with the assistance of the United Nations. It identified an original list of 43 candidates to make the team, a process that included a tryout camp at a Kenyan refugee camp. The IOC winnowed the list to 10 based on the status and ability level of the athletes.

Refugees have competed in the past as independent athletes. This is the first time they have joined together, officially, as a team. All 10 carried remarkable stories.

“I left Sudan in 2005 because of the war,” South Sudanese middle-distance runner Yiech Pur Biel said. “They attacked our village. We had to lie in the bushes for three days when we could only live from fruit and leaves. I was 10 then. In 2005 the situation in South Sudan became worse and I feared I might be killed.

“Being a refugee doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything. We represent millions of refugees, and it will change lives to tell refugees that you can do everything in life.”

Mardini escaped Syria on a small motor boat from Turkey, bound for Greece. The motor failed on the way, and she and another passenger pushed the boat while swimming. Her body felt empty by the end but she made it to the island of Lesbos. She doesn’t look back on the journey as traumatic. It is, for her, an accomplishment: Sport saved her life.

“I remember that without swimming I would never be alive,” Mardini said. “It’s a positive memory for me.”


Popole Misenga lost both parents in the Congo. He boarded a truck to flee his home and jumped on a boat to Kinshasa, where, somehow, he picked up judo. He came to Brazil to train and moved into a favela in Rio. His first Olympics will come in his adopted home city.

“I have a Brazilian son, a Brazilian daughter,” Misenga said. “I see it as my home.”

Across the board, the athletes said while they held out hope of competing under the flags of their original or adopted countries, they are proud to represent refugees. The power in their message is that as athletes, they symbolize dignity. They are reminders that refugees are humans, not statistics. Their presence in the Games promotes empathy but not pity.

At one point Wednesday night, a reporter asked Mardini and Rami Anis, another swimmer from Syria, if they lost family members during the Syrian civil war. Both said they had multiple friends who had been killed. Anis added a polite addendum.

“I prefer your questions would be toward the future,” Anis said. “These championships are about hope and the future, not the dark past.”

Anis came to the Olympics with an unusual goal. He wants to get his picture taken with Michael Phelps, the American 18-time gold-medal winner. At the 2009 world championships, Anis met Phelps and asked for a photograph, he said, but at the time Phelps turned down all requests for photographs to maintain his focus on the event.


“He is a role model,” Anis said. “This time around I hope he is willing to take a picture.”

The Refugee Olympic Team will provide a unique form of empowerment to the athletes and the millions they represent.

“We need to look at refugees as people,” Sherinian said. “It broadens the conversation from humanitarian crisis to human potential.”

Yonas Kinde, a marathoner from Ethiopia who lives in Luxembourg, expressed excitement at the chance to represent refugees. He didn’t view it as an additional burden; his only difficulty will come during his event.

“There is no enjoyment in marathon,” he said.

Yolande Mabika Bukasa, a female judoka from Congo, dyed her hair gold for the Olympics. She said it represented her new life and challenge. She embraced her opportunity, which reaches far beyond the mat.

“I represent all the Congolese people all over the world,” Mabika Bukasa said. “I’m here to show the world we are capable to do everything. I wanted to show everyone in the world what we are trying to do. They’re looking at us as people that could perform nothing in life. I am at the Olympics now and my dream is back. We refugees are capable, and I will show everything I learned in my country. The suffering we had is in the past, now the IOC is building a refugee family of athletes.”

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