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Meet The 2016 Olympics Refugee Team

These are some of the most inspiring athletes coming to Rio.

04/06/2016 3:28 AM AEST | Updated 03/08/2016 11:32 PM AEST
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The International Olympic Committee on Friday revealed the names and profiles of the refugees that will be competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The group includes two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and six runners from Ethiopia and South Sudan. The athletes have relocated to countries including Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Kenya ― and even Brazil.

“Their participation in the Olympics is a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity and building a better future for themselves and their families,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement. “UNHCR stands with them and with all refugees.”

The IOC first announced the formation of a refugee-only team belonging to no one country in March.

Here are the members of this year’s team:

  • Yolande Mabika
    UNHCR
    Fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo separated Mabika from her parents when she was a young child. She remembers little else but running alone and being picked up by a helicopter that took her to the capital, Kinshasa, she told UNHCR. There, living in a center for displaced children, she discovered judo. She went on to become a professional athlete, competing in major tournaments. "Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart," she said. "I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started with judo to have a better life." In 2013, when she came to Rio to compete at the World Judo Championship, her coach confiscated her passport and limited her access to food. Fed up with years of abuse, including being caged after losing tournaments, Mabika fled the hotel and wandered the streets searching for help. Now, as a refugee in Brazil, she has won a spot on the Refugee Olympic Athlete team and received training from Flavio Canto, a Brazilian Olympic bronze medallist. "I will be part of this team and I will win a medal. I am a competitive athlete, and this is an opportunity that can change my life," she said. "I hope my story will be an example for everybody, and perhaps my family will see me and we will reunite."
  • Yusra Mardini, 17
    UNHCR
    Mardini, who is from Damascus, swam all the way to the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey in order to find safety. She first boarded a flimsy vessel, but it started taking on water. Stranded off the Turkish coast with about 20 other desperate passengers, the teenager from Damascus slipped into the water with her sister, Sarah, and began pushing the boat towards Greece. "There were people who didn't know how to swim," she told UNHCR. "It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned." After arriving on Lesbos, she travelled north to Germany, where she eventually started training with a swim club in Berlin, in the fall of 2015. Now 18, she is preparing to compete in the womenï's 200-meter freestyle event. "I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days," she said. "I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives."
  • Rami Anis, 25
    UNHCR
    Anis is also a Syrian competitive swimmer. Hailing from Aleppo, he started formal swimming training when he was 14, according to UNHCR. He credits his Uncle Majad, who swam competitively in Syria, with sharing his passion for competing in the water. "Swimming is my life," he said. "The swimming pool is my home." As bombings and kidnappings in Aleppo grew more frequent, his family put him on a flight to Istanbul to live with an older brother who was studying Turkish. "The bag I took had two jackets, two T-shirts, two trousers," he added. "I thought I would be in Turkey for a couple of months and then return to my country."  As months turned to years, he used the time to hone his swimming technique at the Galatasaray Sports Club. Yet without Turkish nationality, he was unable to participate in competitions. Determined to find a way to compete, Anis rode an inflatable dinghy to the Greek island of Samos. Eventually he reached the Belgian town of Ghent, where he's been training nine times a week with former Olympic swimmer Carine Verbauwen.
  • Yonas Kinde, 36
    UNHCR
    "I normally train every day, but when I heard this news [about the refugee team] I trained two times per day, every day, targeting for these Olympic Games," the Ethiopian runner told UNHCR. Kinde, who has lived in Luxembourg for five years now, rarely stops moving. He's been taking French classes regularly and driving a taxi to earn a living, all while pushing himself to become a better runner. In Germany last October, he completed a marathon in only 2 hours and 17 minutes. But memories of fleeing his home remain uncomfortable territory. "It's a difficult situation," he says about life in Ethiopia. "It's impossible for me to live there, it's very dangerous for my life. I think it will be the big message that refugees, young athletes, they can do their best."
  • Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 21
    UNHCR
    Lohalith, a refugee from South Sudan, will run the 1500-meter race at the 2016 games. She has not seen or spoken to her parents since she was 6 years old and was forced to flee her home, but she has heard that they are still alive, according to UNHCR. Helping her parents is her main motivation as she steps up her training. She knew she was good at athletics after winning school competitions at the refugee camp where she now lives in northern Kenya. But it was only when professional coaches came to select athletes for a special training camp that she realized just how fast she was. She now aims to compete internationally in order to win monetary prizes. "If you have money, then your life can change and you will not remain the way you have been," she said. The first thing she would do with a big win? "Build my father a better house."
  • James Nyang Chiengjiek, 25
    UNHCR
    Chiengjiek is also a refugee from South Sudan living in Kenya, competing in the 800-meter race. He fled his home when he was 13 to avoid being kidnapped by rebels who were forcibly recruiting child soldiers, UNHCR said. As a refugee in neighboring Kenya, he attended school in a highland town known for its runners and joined a group of older boys training for long-distance events. At first he did not have proper running shoes, so we would sometimes borrow footwear from others. "We all of us got a lot of injuries because of the wrong shoes we had," he said. "Then we were sharing. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none." When he goes to Rio, Chiengjiek aims to inspire others. "By running well, I am doing something good to help others, especially refugees," he added. "Maybe among them are athletes with talent, but who did not yet get any opportunities. We have to look back and see where our brothers and sisters are, so if one of them also has talent, we can bring them to train with us and also make their lives better."
  • Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23
    UNHCR
    Also from South Sudan, Lokonyen arrived in Kenya in 2002. She will compete in the 800-meter event. Lokonyen had never competed until about one year ago, when a teacher in her northern Kenya refugee camp suggested that she run a 10-kilometer race, she told UNHCR. "I had not been training. It was the first time for me to run, and I came [in] number two," she said. She has since moved to a training camp near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Lokonyen sees athletics not only as a way to earn prize money and endorsements, but also as a way to inspire others. "I will be representing my people there at Rio, and maybe if I succeed I can come back and conduct a race that can promote peace, and bring people together," she added.
  • Yiech Pur Biel, 21
    UNHCR
    Forced to flee the fighting in southern Sudan in 2005, Biel ended up on his own in a refugee camp in northern Kenya. He started playing soccer there, but grew frustrated at having to rely so much on his teammates. With running he felt greater control over his own destiny, he explained to UNHCR. "In the refugee camp, we have no facilities, even shoes we don't have. There is no gym," he said. "Even the weather does not favor training because from morning up to the evening it is so hot and sunny." Yet he stayed motivated. "I focused on my country, South Sudan, because we young people are the people who can change it," he added. "And secondly, I focused on my parents. I need to change the life they are living." Yiech hopes competing in the 800-meter race at Rio will help him become an ambassador for refugees everywhere.
  • Popole Misenga
    UNHCR
    Misenga was just 9 years old when he fled fighting in Kisingani, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Separated from his family, he was rescued after eight days in the forest and taken to Kinshasa, according to UNHCR. Just like Mabika, he discovered judo in a center for displaced children. "When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn't have one," he said. "Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment." He became a professional judoka, but each time he lost a competition his coach locked him in a cage for days with only coffee and bread to eat. Finally, at the 2013 world championships in Rio, where he was deprived of food and knocked out in the first round, he decided to seek asylum. "In my country, I didn't have a home, a family or children. The war there caused too much death and confusion, and I thought I could stay in Brazil to improve my life," he said. After gaining refugee status, he too began training with Canto. "I want to be part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes team to keep dreaming, to give hope to all refugees and take sadness out of them," he said.
  • Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24
    UNHCR
    Only a few years ago, Lokoro was a young herder in South Sudan. He told UNHCR that he knew nothing of the world except his own homeland, which had been at war for almost all his life. He decided to flee to Kenya, where he's had the freedom to develop his ambitions as a runner. "I want to be world champion," he said. Living in a refugee camp, he excelled in school sports, ultimately gaining a spot on the refugee squad now training near Nairobi under the guidance of Tegla Loroupe, the renowned Kenyan runner who holds several world records. "Before I came here I did not even have training shoes," he added. "Now we know fully how to be athletes." He is happy to be racing the 1500 meter 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," he said. Still, his aim is simple: "If I perform well, I will use that to help support my family, and my people."
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