From war to Olympic glory, the Refugee Olympic Team are competing for tolerance

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By Fflur Jones

“We were the only four who knew how to swim. I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water.” This is 18-year old Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini explaining how her Olympic sport of swimming, saved her life whilst crossing the freezing Aegean Sea as she pushed a sinking dinghy to sanctuary saving 20 other lives.

Among the 200+ countries and territories competing in the Olympic Games in Rio, Mardini’s team stands out: Refugee Olympic Team (or ROT). The International Olympic Committee announced in March the creation of this team, the first of this kind, made up of 10 members who fled from 4 different countries: South Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The IOC’s open minded decision to include these athletes in these games comes at a period when refugees have been breaking records and not Olympic ones. Today, according to the UNHCR 63.5 million people have been displaced by conflict and persecution with 15 million refugees worldwide. 60% of these refugees come from 5 specific countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

Each member’s road to Rio has been an uphill battle from the start, having to flee persecution whilst at the same time completing the gruelling training needed to secure a spot at the Olympic Games. Yet in the face of rising anti-immigration and xenophobic feelings in many developed countries can this team really change attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers?

Anti-immigration and racist sentiments have been growing in parts of Europe and the United States. Last year a renovated shelter destined for asylum seekers in the town of Vorra in Germany was subject to an arson attack, and many eastern European countries have used tear gas to prevent groups of refugees from crossing their borders. Time and time again we have heard the growing concerns over the mass of asylum seekers “flooding” the UK. In reality, refugees represent 0.19% of the UK’s population, whilst in Lebanon, a country 23 times smaller, 1 in 5 people are refugees. But despite these relatively low numbers, some British citizens still feel threatened by a mass influx of refugees, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council reporting significant increases in hate crimes nationwide since the Brexit vote. On the other side of the pond, Donald Trump’s angry rhetoric on Muslim communities and immigrants is also spreading like wildfire. This toxic mix of anger, hate and xenophobia has seemed to dominate recent headlines. But the Refugee Olympic team are hoping to challenge people’s views and opinions on the millions of refugees worldwide at this year’s Olympics.

IOC president Thomas Bach said that “By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, [he wants] to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world. Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic Anthem.”

This message has been embraced by all the team’s members; Popole Misenga, a ROT member from Congo (Judo) said that the team were “fighting for all the refugees in the world”.

Mardini, when asked if her experience of pushing the dinghy was traumatic responded with her trademark positivity: “Not at all. I remember that, without swimming, I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me.” Very few Olympians can claim that their sport has saved their life.

She’s also stood up in defense of the refugees across the world saying that she “want[s] [Olympic fans] to think that refugees are normal humans that had to leave their homelands. Not because they wanted to, not because they wanted to be refugees or run away or have drama in their lives. They had to leave. To get a new life. Get a better life”.

Hers is not the only story of survival in the team. James Chiengjiek fled South Sudan at age 13 to avoid being forced into service as a child solider. Popole Misenga’s mother was murdered when he was a child in Democratic Republic of Congo; Yonas Kinde feared for his life in Ethiopia and eventually fled to Luxembourg. Each of member of the team bring their own story, their own culture and their own message to these Olympics. As Yusra Mardini said:  “We don’t have the same language. We’re all from different countries. But the Olympic flag united us together, and now we are representing 60 million [people] around the world. We want to show everyone that we can do anything. Good athletes. Good people.”

The Refugee Olympic Team are not only the flag bearers for millions of refugees across the world but are also carrying a message of hope and tolerance at a time when it is so desperately needed.

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