Olympic Refugee Team Members Will Be Announced This Week

Refugees provide ample fodder for the headlines. Many of the stories tell tragic tales of loss and desperation. Some of the stories talk of heroism, where the hero can be either the refugees themselves or the humanitarian aid organizations helping them. There are stories describing criminal elements among the refugees and the fear and horror they engender in some of the local populations among whom they settled. And now there is a new star on the horizon — an official Olympic team for those who have no flag under which to complete in the 2016 Olympic Games. The Olympic Committee will announce the final makeup of the refugee team later this week.

Historic Creation of the Olympic Refugee Team

In March of this year, the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee announced the creation of Team Refugee Olympic Athletes. They will march under the Olympic Flag. The Olympic Executive Board asked the National Olympic Committees of the 206 competing countries to identify suitable candidates among refugees living in their countries. From among the 43 candidates identified, five to 10 will make the final cut to the Olympic team.

The Olympic Committee Names Three Candidates for the Team

A Syrian refugee, 18-year-old swimmer Yusra Mardini, is hoping for a spot on the Olympic team. She and her sister fled war-torn Syria last year on a boat with about 20 other refugees. When the boat’s motor stopped working and water began leaking on board, Yusra and two other refugees went into the water to swim behind the boat, pushing it in the direction of Lesbos, an island off Greece. After a long trek in Europe, the two sisters rejoined their family in Germany.

While the war certainly interfered with her swimming training, Yusra did not it stop her. She represented Syria in the 2012 world swimming championships that took place in Turkey.

Of the 8,500 refugees currently in Brazil, only Popole Misenga, 24, and Yolande Mabika, 28, both from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), have a chance of making the final cut for the team. Only Misenga has been mentioned by name by the Olympic committee, but Mabika seems to be a serious contender. Both arrived in Brazil in 2013 to compete in a world judo championship as part of the DRC national team. They left the hotel in which they were being housed to request refugee status in Brazil.

The DRC has been wracked with violence since the 1998-2003 civil war, in which five million citizens were killed, and that left many millions internally displaced as a result of the breakdown of traditional society and infrastructure. But the violence did not stop with the end of the war.

The judo coach would starve team members, lock them in closets for days, and otherwise abuse them. In Brazil for the competition, he left the team without food or their passports. Misenga and Mabika decided to leave the hotel, venturing onto unfamiliar streets and among people speaking an unfamiliar language. The were approved for refugee status in Brazil.

Misenga wants to represent all refugees around the globe. Mabika has a more personal reason for wanting to be on the team – she is hoping that her family back in the DRC, from whom she has had no word, will see her competing in the Olympics and reach out to her.

Iranian taekwondo competitor Raheleh Asemani, 26, seems a sure thing for the Olympic refugee team. She currently lives in Belgium. The reasons for her refugee status have not been disclosed.

At the qualifying trials in Turkey in January, Asemani secured for herself a place in the Olympic games. She will likely compete on the refugee team as she does not yet have Belgian citizenship.

Famous Athletic Refugees

Sports is a means of rehabilitation for those suffering from the trauma of war and displacement. Some former refugees have made it big. South Sudanese Luol Deng is a popular basketball player in the United States and played in the 2012 Olympics. Guor Mading Maker, a long-distance runner, is also from South Sudan. Saido Berahino, a soccer player in the UK, was born in Burundi. Soccer player Shefki Kuqi is from Kosovo has played for Finland and Britain.

The new Olympic refugee team will introduce us to five to 10 brave and ambitious athletes who aim to build new productive lives in spite of having suffered the traumas of war and displacement.

[Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Images]

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