SEATTLE, Washington — At the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people across the globe. Of this 79.5 million, 26 million were refugees. One such refugee was 17-year-old Yusra Mardini. In 2015, she found herself treading water in the Aegean Sea for three hours as she and her sister attempted to flee Syria. A year later, Mardini was competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She represented the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team. The Refugee Olympic Team gives hope to refugees all over the world.
The 2016 Refugee Olympic Team
The Refugee Olympic Team was created in an effort to show solidarity with refugees around the world and show them that even those with the odds stacked against them have the potential to reach the Olympics. After National Olympic Committees around the world identified 43 potential athletes to be on the Refugee Olympic Team,10 went on to compete in Rio.
Regarding the formation of the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team, the President of the International Olympic Committee emphasized that “refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.” The presence of the Refugee Olympic Team reminds everyone that refugees deserve the same kind of opportunities and assistance as everyone else, despite the circumstances they come from.
On the Road to Tokyo 2021
Through hurdles posed by the coronavirus outbreak, the Refugee Olympic Team will make its return to Tokyo in 2021. This time, 49 athletes will be sent to represent 11 different sports.
Among them is Yonas Kinde, a marathoner originally hailing from Ethiopia. Kinde first started to run when he was a teenager but had to flee to Luxembourg in 2012. There, he was unable to compete because he did not hold an official nationality. He was not eligible for any competition at the elite level.
Now, Kinde has joined the Refugee Olympic Team and has a chance to compete in Tokyo. Despite the games being postponed, he says that the Refugee Olympic Team will continue to train and that “our dream will not change.”
The Syrian Mother and Olympic Air Rifle Champion
Niccolo Campriani is an Olympic champion and shooting veteran from Italy. In 2019, he made the ambitious decision to train a small group of refugees to the Olympic standard in less than one year. One athlete under Campriani is Khaoula, whose discipline is the 10-meter air rifle. She fled Syria in 2014 and settled in Switzerland, where she now lives with her son.
A lifelong athlete herself, Khaoula was quick to answer Campriani’s call. Campriani saw that she wanted to prove something “out of hope, rather than frustration or anger.” Khaoula has since been practicing vigorously under Campriani’s watch.
The presence of a refugee team at the Olympics goes beyond representation. Following the formation of the 2016 team, the Olympic Refuge Foundation was created. It aims to improve the lives of refugees through sports.
Sports support the mental and physical wellbeing of refugees. Having an outlet such as physical activity can provide great benefits to displaced people, who have already experienced trauma and pain.
In order to provide this support for the wellbeing of refugees, the Olympic Refuge Foundation builds athletic facilities where they are needed most, including areas where there is a great number of displaced people. Through sports, refugee children are given the opportunity to experience an aspect of normalcy after being uprooted from their homes.
The Olympic Refuge Foundation has recently been active in Uganda, where it has launched two new programs for sports development: Strong, Fit and Empowered (SaFE) and Game Connect. SaFE works with families at home and keeps people safe while engaging in sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. Game Connect is improving the access refugees have to sports by setting up soccer leagues with experienced coaches.
The Olympic Refuge Foundation aims to grant one million young people access to sports by 2024. Despite a global health crisis, the Refugee Olympic Team gives hope to refugees around the world, while the Olympic Refuge Foundation provides an avenue for these inspirations to become a reality.
– Evan Driscoll