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Syrian refugee Olympic team represents dignity and poise of embattled Syrians, draws international support

Amongst the other elite-level competitors at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics on Saturday, swimmer Yusra Mardini did not look out of place. But the enormous obstacles she had to overcome to reach that destination set her apart.

While crossing the Aegean sea with 18 other refugees bound for Greece, the dinghy Mardini and her sister were in began sinking. The girls, who were the only people on the boat who could swim, braced the cold waters and pushed the boat for three hours to prevent it from capsizing, eventually reaching land.

Now, as part of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to send ten athletes to the Olympics as part of a “Refugee Olympic Team”, Mardini is bringing the same mettle that helped her save the lives of 18 fellow refugees to the highest level of competition–and holding her own, winning the first women’s heat. Clocking a time of 1:09:21 for the women’s 100-meter butterfly stroke, Mardini came in 41st overall and did not qualify for semifinals, but will have another chance to do so.

Further recognition of the plight of refugees had been paid earlier as Ibrahim Al-Hussein, a Syrian refugee and swimmer who lost his left leg from the calf down to a bomb in Syria, was selected to bear the Rio 2016 Olympic Torch through the Eleonas refugee and migrant camp in Athens. Ibrahim had to relearn to walk with a prosthetic limb, and now maintains a rigorous training schedule despite working 10-hour overnight shifts at a café in Greece.

According to the UNHCR, or “U.N. Refugee Agency”, “the symbolic gesture” of selecting Ibrahim is “meant to show solidarity with the world’s refugees at a time when millions are fleeing war and persecution worldwide.” This same ethos can be said to apply to the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team.

“It is an honor,” Ibrahim told the UNHCR about carrying the Olympic torch. “Imagine achieving one of your biggest dreams. Imagine that your dream of more than 20 years is becoming a reality.”

The Refugee Olympic Team is composed of five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one from Ethiopia. Each athlete is sponsored by a different country; for example, all five South Sudanese athletes are supported by Kenya. Members of the team have spoken of their desire to offer a “message of hope” to other refugees.

James Nyang Chiengjiek, a South Sudanese runner, has said of other refugees:

“Maybe among them are athletes with talent, but who did not yet get any opportunities. We are refugees like that, and some of us have been given this opportunity to go to Rio,” he says. “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.”

The ten competitors received a letter of recognition from Pope Francis for their courage and achievements.

“I extend my greetings and wish you success at the Olympic Games in Rio — that your courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity,” he wrote.
“Your experience serves as testimony and benefits us all. I pray for you and ask that you, please, do the same for me.”


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