Team Refugee on belonging to the human race

Blimey. It’s only just over a week since the Rio Olympics finished and the reverberations continue, with the Paralympics yet to come.

It’s such a powerful focus for belonging. Our national pride as we soared up the medals league table. Our regional delight as a local hero wins a medal. Our shared joy when our own sporting passion hits the headlines.

Amongst all the celebrations the reflections of one team have resonated around the world. The ten athletes of Team Refugee had the biggest cheer as they entered the stadium at the opening ceremony, and inspired billions.

While every other team waved their national flag, this team waved the Olympic symbol: this was beyond a nation, it meant belonging to the human race.

Marathon runner, Yonar Kinde, originally from Ethiopia, summed it up
“We are equal now. We compete like human beings, like the others.”
“We are ten refugees selected by the IOC and their flag leads us. Sixty-five million follow us, more than one country. We are inspiring.”

The team included two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. Most of them have been away from their home countries and families since childhood. With almost no formal training and no facilities until shortly before the Olympics, they competed on raw talent and determination.

The athlete’s stories

Kinde and the other nine athletes shared their stories in this BBC article.

A few stories from the BBC article:

Yiech Pur Biel, a South Sudanese runner, says

“Sport have me a sense of belonging. Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something.”

He lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years after escaping a civil war. He started running competitively just over a year ago, Despite the weather being unfavourable for training during the day, and there being no facilities, he continues to compete.

Yusra Mardini, the teenage swimmer from Syria, who (with her sister) got in the sea and swam pulling along a stricken boat of refugees as part of their journey to Europe, said

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them, not because they wanted to run away and be refugees.”

Athlete James Chiengijek fled his home to avoid being recruited as a child soldier, like many of the “lost boys of Sudan: who made it to refugee camps in Kenya from which several long-distance runners have emerged. He picked up injuries as a result of having the wrong footwear but that did not stop him.

“My dream is to get good results at the Olympics and also to help people. Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone.”

Middle-distance runner Anjelina Nadai Lohalith said

“I’m happy because it will be the first tie refugees are represented in the Olympics. It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just the ‘other people'”

For runner, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, a young cattle herder who fled South Sudan without any shoes, showed his talent in school in a refugee camp in Nairobi. The effort paid off. He said, in this article on the UN Refugee Agency’s website,

“I know I am racing on behalf of refugees. I was one of those refugees there in the camp, and now I have reached somewhere special. I will meet so many people. My people will see me on the television, on Facebook.” Still, his aim is simple: “If I perform well, I will use that to help support my family, and my people”.

The UNHCR and the Olympics

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) celebrated its 65th anniversary last year and has helped over 50 million refugees to resettle their lives.

The UNHCR’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began 20 years ago. After visiting refugees in Greece, IOC President Thomas Bach, became further committed to the creation of a refugee team to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Thea team was only selected in October 2015, leaving them with previous little time to train.

“We help [high-level refugee athletes] to make their dream of sporting excellence come true, even when they have to flee from violence and hunger. This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.”
 – IOC President Thomas Bach

Since 2010, the IOC has provided more than USD 1.6m in support of UNHCR.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements, praised the team’s contribution to improving the world’s to improving the world’s perception of refugees.

“There is no doubt that they have left a legacy with their presence at these Olympic Games, but they have also inspired all of us to do more for work for peace and help those forced to flee,” she said.

She praised team members as “true Olympians”, adding that taking part was as important as the result.

“The Olympic spirit is really the way one competes, and how one presents his or herself. And these athletes were true Olympians in terms of how they’re cheered on others, how they made friends with people from all over the world,” she said

The UNHCR blog is proud that Team Refugee “won hearts and minds all over the world.”

These ten athletes represented 65 million refugees and displaced people around the world,

“This team has captured the world’s attention and in a short period of time, changed the conversation about refugees,” said UNHCR deputy chief Kelly T. Clements.

Where does Team Refugee go from here?

Without country flags, training camps or national anthems, they achieved so much.

Swimmer Rami Anis, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, who found safety and a trainer in Belgium, reflected:

“It’s a strange feeling not to compete under my country’s flag, but unfortunately war has prevented us from competing in the name of our country. We hope that by the time Tokyo Olympics come, the war will be over, we will go back to our country and compete under its flag. Nothing is more previous than one’s homeland.”