By Amla Pisharody
This year, the Olympics will include participation from a remarkable team of athletes that cuts across borders, united not by country but by conflict, personal tragedy, and hope for a better world. The year 2015-2016 has seen events that have led to the displacement of over 65 million people, 21.3 million of who are now refugees. And for the first time ever, the International Olympic Committee has decided that in Rio 2016, 10 refugees will march as a team and compete under the Olympic flag.
The team has four brilliant women, with Yusra Mardini in the 100 m freestyle swimming event, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith running the 1500 m, Rose Nathike Lokonyen running the 800 m, and Yolande Bukasa Mabika participating in judo. Each of these women has an unbelievable story to tell.
Eighteen-year-old Yusra Mardini, who has been swimming since she was three, has a dramatic story of escape from her home country. She was one of Syria’s top freestylers, and had been representing her country in various international events, until the war in Syria began. Her house was fired upon, and the roof of the swimming club she trained in was blown apart by bombs. “Maybe I’m going to die on the way. But I’m almost dead in my country. I can’t do anything,” she had said of the choice that lay before her. Mardini and her sister boarded an overcrowded dinghy with 20 people on its way to Greece, and when its motor died, she jumped into the Aegean sea with her sister and another woman, kicking for three hours, towing and pushing the boat with the others in it, until they managed to reach the shore. They then trekked 1,000 miles to Germany, where Mardini finally began to train again under Sven Spannekrebs in Berlin. “It is the most important thing in my life. It’s in my heart and I want to achieve something in it,” she told the BBC.
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, now 21-years-old, was nine when she was forced to flee the war-torn region of South Sudan with her aunt — an age at which her community expected her to get married. Like the five other runners on Team Refugee from South Sudan, Lohalith’s journey to the Olympics was through the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Lohalith has been running since primary school, she says, and in 2015, was told by her teacher to run a 10 km marathon organised by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation. She hasn’t looked back since. She has been training hard at the Foundation, night and day, and she says she does it for her parents, who she hasn’t seen since she left Sudan.
“The fighting started in our village then they ran away letting us go to another town. That’s where we got the vehicle, and the vehicle took us to Kenya,”says 23-year-old Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who fled South Sudan and came to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in 2002. Like Lohalith, Lokonyen’s parents are back in South Sudan. They left her in the camp with her siblings and went back to South Sudan in 2008.
In 2015, Lokonyen also ran the 10 km marathon organized by Tegla Loroupe Foundation, and came second, “Some of us ran without shoes, like me; I was running barefoot,” she says. Since then, she has been training in Kenya. “I will be representing my people there at Rio, and maybe if I succeed I can come back and conduct a race that can promote peace, and bring people together,” she says.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.The 28-year old is originally from Bakavu,the area worst affected by the civil war there. Mabika was 10 when she started judo, and began entering competitions four years later. “I started judo to make my life better, to change my life, because I searched for my family for so long. For me judo is very important in my life, it gives me a strong heart,” she says.
In 2013 Mabika and her Olympics teammate Popole Misenga, sought refuge in Brazil, during the World Judo Championships in Rio, and haven’t gone back since. Her coach, Geraldo Bernardes, believes she is a promising candidate for this year’s Olympics, “She has all the conditions to arrive there and have good fights, and can secure a medal,” he says. Mabika, who was separated from her parents as a child, hopes that her Olympic fame might be seen by her family, prompting them to reach out to her.
The six others in Team Refugee are men. Rami Anis fled Syria to avoid joining the army, and is training in Belgium for the 100m butterfly swimming race. Yiech Pur Biel (800m athletics), James Nyang Chiengjiek (400m athletics), and Paulo Amotun Lokoro (1500m athletics) all fled from South Sudan and have been training with the Tegla Loroupe Foundation. Yonas Kinde left Ethopia due to the political and economical problems, and has been training in Luxembourg for the marathon at Rio, and Popole Misenga,who sought asylum in Brazil with Mabika, is training for judo. The team will also have its own entourage of members and coaches like every other team. Tegla Loroupe, the Olympian long distance track and road runner, will be the team’s Chef De Mission (manager), and Isabela Mazão from Brazil will be team’s Deputy Chef De Mission (deputy manager).
As Lohalith says about the Olympics, “We are representing the millions of refugees all over the world. Maybe, in years to come, I will represent myself. But at this moment we are their light. Wherever they are, at least they will now have some encouragement and know: We can do something.”
Co-published with Firstpost.
(Featured image of Yusra Mardini by United Nations, CC BY 4.0.)