It's hard to imagine good news emerging from environmental chaos in Brazil and warfare around the globe, but a team of refugees competing at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this month stood in the spotlight on Tuesday, and took the opportunity to urge compassion for displaced people worldwide.
The 10 athletes on the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) were given a standing ovation as they joined the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
"We are ambassadors for the other refugees. We cannot forget this chance that you gave us," said Yiech Pur Biel, a track and field athlete originally from South Sudan. "We are not bad people. It's only a name to be a refugee."
Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer, said this year's games make clear that people displaced from their home countries can still contribute to society—countering an argument that has been waged by rightwing opponents of open borders.
"We still are humans. We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something," Mardini said. "We didn't choose to leave our homelands. We didn't choose the name of refugees.... We promise again that we are going to do what it takes to inspire everyone."
The New York Times writes of Mardini's story:
Last August, Mardini and her sister Sarah fled war-torn Syria and embarked on a harrowing, monthlong journey through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, up through the Balkans and Central Europe, to Germany, narrowly dodging capture and death. When their crammed dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, she and her sister, also a swimmer, jumped into the water and helped guide the boat to safety.
Mardini's story came to public attention in March when she was identified by the International Olympic Committee as a candidate to compete on a new team of refugees, made up of athletes who are stateless or would otherwise be excluded from the Games. She was thrust into the spotlight, celebrated by the news media as a fresh-faced example of Germany's so-called welcome culture—a story of uplift at the center of the global refugee crisis.
"We wanted to send a signal of hope to all refugees in the world," said IOC president Thomas Bach. "These great athletes will show everyone that, despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, and most important, through the strength of the human spirit."
The athletes competing this year are:
- Rami Anis (M): Country of origin – Syria; host National Olympics Committee (NOC) – Belgium; sport – swimming
- Yiech Pur Biel (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 800m
- James Nyang Chiengjiek (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 400m
- Yonas Kinde (M): Country of origin – Ethiopia; host NOC – Luxembourg; sport – athletics, marathon
- Anjelina Nada Lohalith (F): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 1500m
- Rose Nathike Lokonyen (F): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 800m
- Paulo Amotun Lokoro (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 1500m
- Yolande Bukasa Mabika (F): Country of origin – Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC – Brazil; sport – judo, -70kg
- Yusra Mardini (F): Country of origin – Syria; host NOC – Germany; sport – swimming
- Popole Misenga (M): Country of origin – Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC – Brazil; sport – judo, -90kg