Rose Lokonyen, Anjelina Lohalith, James Chiengjiek, Yiech Biel, and Paulo Lokoro of South Sudan. Yonas Kinde of Ethiopia, Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika of the Congo, as well as Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini of Syria. They’ve lived through bombings, fear, violence and war, having fled their beloved countries in hopes of a better life. They are swimmers and runners, judokas and marathoners. They are survivors, each and every one of them, and together they’ve formed the first-ever Olympic refugee team.
When you read the athletes’ candid profiles and watch the video segments on their life stories, it’s more than clear that the Rio Olympics’ most inspirational team is, hands-down, this one. But its existence serves as far more than a heartwarming story—it’s also a major game-changer.
In recent times, the word “refugee” has brought to mind masses of the starving, straggling and battered, to the point where it became a story of dehumanization on top of the displacement these individuals already suffered. At the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, politicians referred to Syrian asylum-seekers as “migrants” rather than refugees, thereby spinning the situation in such a way to deflect the responsibility of addressing the crisis. The refugees’ plight was boiled down to a numbers and politics game for those not directly impacted by it, and once attacks like the Paris shootings hit, the whole thing morphed into a security issue. All along, it was difficult to remember the individuals making up the flood of refugees, but once fear became a strong factor in the equation it was like refugees ceased to become people with faces and histories. Rather, they became just another Monday morning news story, or a problem for someone else to deal with, or a risk.
That’s exactly why the Olympic refugee team is a triumph. For the first time, refugees are being given an opportunity to tell their own stories in a manner that makes it impossible not to care what they have to say. As people, we feel for people. Not for news articles or crowds going through mass exodus of their home countries. When the refugee narrative becomes personal, it becomes so much harder to stomach the reality of the abominable conditions of Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps in addition to the other abundant issues individuals with refugee status face across the globe.
In the Rio Olympics, these ten athletes and incredible human beings will make a name for themselves that carries connotations other than those of “asylum seeker.” Biel, competing in the 800 m race, said it best: “When you go and carry the flag of refugees, everywhere you go, you are talking about the refugees. You tell the world that we are refugees; we are human beings like other people.”
His teammate, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, also added her voice to the conversation, saying, “I want [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.” In a time where most individuals in stable living situations are convinced refugees are terrorists or burdens, taking on this perspective could literally change lives. .
It goes without saying that, in a perfect world, this team wouldn’t even exist. But we live in a world where some human beings remain dependent on refugee camps for years, unable to return home. It’s the year 2016, and despite the best efforts of the UN and countless NGOs, the status of “refugee” is becoming a semipermanent one for thousands of people. For them, living under the shadow that comes with their status, Team Refugee is a symbol of hope and internationalism. No matter the outcome of the events, it’s evident that this year’s summer Olympics brings more than just games to the international stage.
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.