When the Rio Olympics open this week, there will be teams representing more than 200 countries and territories. For the first time, there will also be one team representing the millions of people who have no country – refugees from repressive regimes that persecute their own citizens or failed states that fail to protect them.
In a year when refugees have found borders, camps, and minds closed, the International Olympic Committee did something remarkably open: It set up the Refugee Olympic Team, with 10 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia, who have had to overcome tremendous obstacles to be able to compete.
On Friday in Brazil, they will take center stage at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Games as a unique team that reminds us of the will and spirit of humanity that is also part of the Olympic ideal, regardless of the flag athletes wear. This team will represent the courage and determination of refugees across the world who have bravely persevered after fleeing war, violent attacks, and persecution.
One of the refugee team members is swimmer Rami Anis, 25, who will compete in the 100-meter butterfly. “I used to train and was waiting for the war to end in my country so I could go back to participating,” he said. Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Rami made the difficult decision to flee his home, Aleppo, in 2011, as bombings and kidnappings became a daily reality. Rami left behind everything but a small bag of clothes and his passion for swimming.
In addition to the grueling training all Olympic swimmers undergo to prepare for Rio, Rami had to cross dangerous seas in an inflatable dinghy to Greece.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, 63.5 million people are displaced by conflict and persecution. Many politicians push to keep refugees from crossing their borders. The creation of a refugee team reframes the debate, to focus not on fear and pushing away but on inclusion, and celebrating the resilience and potential all refugees represent.
“We’re fighting for all the refugees in the world,” Popole Misenga, a refugee team member from Congo competing in judo told the Associated Press. “I’m not sad that I’m not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”