For the first time in Olympics history, a team of refugee athletes will band together in Rio de Janeiro this August to represent the 20 million people in the world who have no one country to call home.
The 10 athletes ― two swimmers, two judokas and six runners ― come from all over the world. They speak different languages and have different stories. But at recent press conferences, it has become clear that the men and women who comprise the team are united in a simple, yet powerful message they hope to get across to the world ― a message perhaps best put by Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini.
“We still are humans. We are not only refugees,” Mardini said. “We are like everyone in the world ... We didn’t choose to leave our homelands.”
Originally from Damascus, Syria, Mardini and her sister, Sarah, found themselves with other refugees in Turkish waters inside an overcrowded boat when it started to leak. Many inside the boat couldn’t swim, so Mardini, her sister and another refugee got in the water and started to push the sinking boat all the way to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world.”
Mardini’s story, like all of the refugee athletes participating at the Olympic Games, is one of perseverance and strength, of human emotion and human fears. Yet still today, many people have difficulty grappling with the term “refugee.” Research shows that the mere mention of the term can dehumanize the men and women it is being used to describe, and that the questionable ways the media continues to depict and describe refugees often make things worse. Too many view these people, who fled terrible situations only to survive, as inherently different from non-refugees ― as people to feel bad for, at best, and to view as criminal, at worst.
“We are not bad people. It’s only a name to be a refugee,” said Olympic runner Yiech Pur Biel, who was forced to leave his home of South Sudan for Kenya in 2005. Last month, Pur Biel also said that he wants to “help remove the title ‘refugee’ and show that we are more than that.”
To say the International Olympic Committee has its issues would be an understatement. But when its president, Thomas Bach, announced in October that refugees would be allowed to compete in Rio, he gave them more than a chance to win a medal. He also gave refugees a chance to show their faces and to show them with pride, too.
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