Thousands of spectators rippled to their feet while millions of others around the world joyfully watched live images on TV as the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) marched in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremony. Comprised of five South Sudanese runners, two Congolese judokas, two swimmers from Syria and a marathoner from Ethiopia, the six male and four female athletes were selected from a pool of 43 possible candidates. Their inclusion was one of the top feel-good moments of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio because the 10-athlete-team not only carried the Olympic flag, but also a message of hope for millions of young people that have been driven from their homes.
However, while there is much to celebrate and many to praise for this unprecedented and historical initiative in the world of sports, in an ideal world such a team should not exist at all. The few joyful moments - compounded with our cheers - should not obscure the realities of unmatched human suffering in refugee camps worldwide. The very existence of such a team reminds us that the world has collectively failed over 65 million displaced people in helping them return home or find a new place to call their permanent home. These athletes represent a community that is running away from regional conflicts, civil wars, aggressions, genocides, famines, poverty, and diseases— some of which are so deep-rooted that finding viable solutions seems elusive.
Hope for the stateless
The news about the death of Samia Yusuf Omar, a 21-year-old runner from Somalia, shocked the world in 2010. Omar had burst into the international spotlight when she participated in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but received threats upon her return to Somalia. With the goal of competing in the London Olympic Games in 2012, she travelled through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya towards Italy, where she hoped to find a coach. She drowned at sea after the boat she was travelling in ran out of fuel. Sadly, Omar’s story is not unique anymore; thousands of people – among them women, youths and children - have died in the recent years after their ships capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. They each had a dream to follow.
Two of the current ROT members are among those who have risked their lives to cross the sea to Europe. Rami Anis, a Syrian swimmer, escaped from his hometown of Aleppo in 2011 and finally made it to Belgium after living in Turkey for many years and then crossing the sea to Greece last October.
Yusra Mardini, another Syrian swimmer, fled Syria last August and now lives in Germany. Mardini was thrust into the media spotlight last year after the story of her bravery during the trip from Turkey to Greece hit headlines. Mardini and her sister, who is also a swimmer, were traveling in a crowded dinghy when it broke down. The two sisters jumped into the water and dragged the boat to safety.
It is unlikely that Mardini or Anis will reach the semi-finals, given the lack of proper training and diet that they received prior to the games. However, the duo, along with the eight other athletes, are seen as symbols of hope and inspiration for millions of displaced youths who also have dreams to shine.
Protracted and forgotten
While the crises in the Middle East have captured the world’s attention in recent years, it is the civil wars and non-ending conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan that have produced more displaced people as well as protracted refugee crises. In fact, it is not a coincidence that most of the ROT members are non-Middle-Eastern refugees.
For some of the refugee athletes, particularly those living in host countries with fair immigration systems, the sooner they lose their status as ‘refugee’ the better. For instance, in January, the IOC considered placing Raheleh Asemani, the former Iranian taekwondo fighter, on the ROT, but she obtained Belgian citizenship in April of this year. She is now part the Belgian Olympic team and will compete for her newly adopted nation.
However, for many young refugee athletes, going to Olympic Games as part of the ROT is the only option. Five of the South Sudanese athletes in the current ROT still live in refugee camps in Kenya, where they have lived in limbo for the past 10 to 15 years. The Kenyan government announced that it will close Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, in November. At that point, they will be stateless and without refugee registration in a camp. The only Olympic option for many of the camp’s young hopefuls, the ROT, will be closed.
Attracting global attention
To bring global attention to the “magnitude of the refugee crisis”, which is now surpassing even post-World War II numbers, the International Olympic Committee decided to finance the participation of refugee athletes.
The presence of the ROT is also seen as an opportunity for organizations that help refugees and displaced people around the world. Many of these organizations, including UNHCR, receive most of their funding through donations from governments. It is important for these donor countries and their taxpayers to be aware of the refugee crisis and the need for continued financial support. Events such as the Olympic Games are excellent occasions to increase awareness on a massive scale.
While providing spots to refugee athletes to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics is a good first step in right the direction, it is by no measures sufficient for a global community that has grown exponentially in recent years. Today, more than 65 million people, including over 21 million refugees, have been voluntarily and forcibly displaced from their homes. More than half of world’s forcibly displaced people are children, hence giving hope for better future is just as important (if not more) as providing basics like food, accommodations and education.
It is important to remind the world of the gravity of the situation and to personalize the suffering of refugees. Perhaps learning about one athlete’s story will make millions more aware and more generous. We must not let their stories end at the Olympics- we must push forward for their futures.
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