I consider myself a pretty casual sports fan, but I love the Olympics. It’s an amazing thing that for two weeks every four years, we as a human race can put our differences aside and come together for a celebration of sport. A sense of pride wells up every time one of my countrymen takes the stand and receives their medal. While I might cheer for my home team the loudest, I can’t help but root for the underdog countries. The countries that might just have a small handful of athletes competing or taking home their first Olympic medal ever. And for the members of the Olympics’ first refugee team, the opportunity to compete on the world stage is a dream that seemed like an impossibility just a year go.
For these 10 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just making it to the Rio games is the gold medal. They come from countries ravaged by war, famine and unspeakable poverty, to represent some 65 million people without a home and show the world that they have something to offer. They’re exactly what the Olympic spirit is all about.
While athletes from other countries have their families in the stands cheering them on, the members of the refugee team have only each other to lean on. Many of them have lost contact with their family members and don’t know if they’re still alive.
Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini, 18, was climbing into an overcrowded inflatable raft last summer with her sister in Turkey in an effort to flee to the Greek island of Lesbos. After the dingy’s motor broke, they had to jump out and swim. She didn’t advance past the first round of the 100-meter freestyle in Rio on Wednesday, but the fact that she’s even at the Olympics seems like a miracle.
Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika now live in Brazil after fleeing the civil war in their home country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While both were knocked out of the judo competition on Wednesday, the importance of their presence at the games isn’t lost on them. “We are here together and we are going to make unprecedented history,” Buska told NPR. “This is not just a struggle for sport, it’s a struggle for life.”