Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer on the Refugee Olympic Team. (Photo: Reuters)

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer on the Refugee Olympic Team. (Photo: Reuters)

From Rio, Olympic Refugee Team Urges Compassion for Displaced People

"It's only a name to be a refugee"

Nadia Prupis

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."

Fans can follow the ROT's stories on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Their live blog is here.

Popole Misenga, a judo athlete from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: AFP)

The ROT in front of Rio's famed Christ the Redeemer statue. (Photo: Getty)

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

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

GOP 'Silence Speaks Volumes,' Says Ilhan Omar as Boebert's Bigotry Goes Unpunished

"Normalizing this bigotry not only endangers my life but the lives of all Muslims. Anti-Muslim bigotry has no place in Congress."

Brett Wilkins ·


Africans Should Be 'Applauded, Not Punished,' Say Advocates Amid Omicron Travel Ban

"What is going on right now is inevitable," said African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance co-chair Dr. Ayoade Alakija. "It's a result of the world's failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent, and speedy manner."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Drilling Report Blasted as 'Shocking Capitulation to the Needs of Corporate Polluters'

"Greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it's OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said one campaigner.

Jessica Corbett ·


UNESCO Members Adopt First Global AI Ethics Agreement 'To Benefit Humanity'

"We're at a critical juncture in history," said Ethics in Tech founder Vahid Razavi. "We need as humans to come together and decide what is the best course of action to take with these technologies before they surpass us in their abilities."

Brett Wilkins ·


Progressive US Lawmakers Mark Black Friday With Calls to Pass the PRO Act

"The right to organize, fight for better working conditions, and fair pay must always be protected."

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo