I was so riveted to the Rio Olympic Games, last month. For two solid weeks, every day and every night was superlative sports viewing. The lead up to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad was marred with so many dire predictions by so many pundits about how much of a disaster these Games would be.
But the athletes had the final word, especially the women, and their amazing performances, throughout an utterly compelling two-week extravaganza of world records and personal bests, punctuated a most resounding message: Never underestimate the power of the human spirit.
As testament to this ethos, the International Olympic Committee significantly raised the bar of practicing what you preach, when it recently created an inspired and inspiring Olympic team comprised of a group of 10 refugees to compete in Track & Field, Judo, and Swimming. They were:
Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24 years old, originally from South Sudan, now living in Kenya. He competed in the 1500m;
James Chiengjiek, 24 years old, originally from South Sudan, and now living and training in Kenya. He competed in the 400m;
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 21 years old, originally from South Sudan, but now living and training in Kenya. She competed in the 800m;
Yiech Pur Biel, 24 years old, originally from Nasir, South Sudan, but now living and training in Kenya. He competed in the 800m;
Yonas Kinde, 36 years old, originally from Ethiopia, but now living and training in Luxembourg. He competed in the Marathon;
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 23 years old, originally from South Sudan, now living and training in Kenya. She competed in the 1500m;
Popole Misenga, 24 years old, judoka, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He competed at Men’s 90kg division;
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, 28 years old, Congolese-born Brazilian judoka. She competed at Women’s 70kg division;
Yusra Mardini, at 18 years old, the youngest of the refugee Olympians, originally from Syria and currently living in Berlin, Germany. She competed as a as swimmer in the 100m freestyle and butterfly;
Rami Anis, 25 years old, originally from Syria, and now residing in Belgium. He competed as a as swimmer in the 100m freestyle and butterfly;
When these brave souls – refugees from the horrifically war-torn countries of Ethiopia, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan – entered the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, only the Brazilian team received a more resounding welcome by the host nation.
Despite indescribable deprivation and soul wrenching tragedies, they persevered, and with resilience and dignity they found a way to transform themselves into a team of Olympic athletes to compete at the Rio Games.
These are people, who were displaced with no country to call their home, so their flag was the Olympic flag.
Almost every news story that we hear from the Western media covering one of the broken countries where these refugees had to flee, involves some type of horrible violence.
This type of daily coverage generates a very negative bias that makes us think everyone from these countries can’t possibly assimilate to a “civilized” way of life because of their experiences.
Yet, the true story is all too often the one never reported by the news media – it is the story about how much good there is to see if you know where to look.
The reason this story touches me is because I am an immigration lawyer, who represents refugees from all over the world, much like the ones who competed on the Rio Olympic Refugee Team.
I need to know their stories in order to help them, and many of the stories they share with me are filled with examples of how a terrible situation will bring people together to help each other.
I have been deeply touched on many occasions when I hear about instances of incredible acts of courage, selflessness, and kindness. It is easy to overlook this when all you see is a person who has nothing. Things change when you ask the person standing in front of you to share their experiences.
According to a United Nations estimate, at the end of 2015, 65.3 million people had been displaced from their homes and countries. The ten refugees, who competed in these Games, were there to remind us that they are innocent victims, who had very normal lives like you and I before things turned terribly wrong. They are not the monsters that so many news reports would have us believe; they are people.
For example, 18 year-old Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini, who was so inspired by Pope Francis’ letter to the Refugee Olympians that she won her first heat in the 100 meter butterfly, was literally fighting for her life less than a year ago. Yusra had to take a small life-boat into the Aegean sea to reach Western Europe. The boat began to take on water and it started to sink. Yusra stood up and dove into the freezing cold water with a rope tied to the boat and swam for 3 1/2 hours to bring everyone on the boat to shore. When she got to Rio she said “Without swimming. I would never be alive.”
Then there is the story of, Rose Lokonyen from South Sudan, who had lived in a refugee camp since age seven, beginning in 2002. Rose ran her first competitive race barefoot; Now, she has competed at the Rio Olympics.
Another athlete, Yeich Pur Beil, has not seen his family since 2005. Yeich has heard they are alive, but he has not been able to confirm it.
For all the Refugee Olympians, the Rio Games were never about winning medals. Rather, they were about earning dignity for these displaced people, while also changing the hearts and minds of those, who have never had to endure such tragedy. I would say that they accomplished their mission.
At a time when so many people in this country are questioning whether to accept refugees I think Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said it best during the Opening Ceremonies: “We are living in a world of selfishness where certain people claim to be superior to others.”
Let us hope that the Refugee Team at the Rio Olympics has changed people’s opinions.
For more information about these remarkable people, who are true Olympic Champions, please see the links below:
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