As the dust settles on another Olympic Games and 11,000 elite athletes recover from their welcome-home celebrations, some spectators may now be wondering, “so what happens to Team Refugee?”
It’s a question the International Olympic Committee is probably hoping will cross many minds, given that they formed the team to make people think about their displaced brothers and sisters.
The answer is simple: like the other athletes, “their lives go back to normal” according to The Wrap. The 10 competitors will head back to the countries were they are currently living: Kenya, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, with two remaining in Brazil where they now reside.
Although the athletes originate from Syria, Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia, the sad reality is that they don’t know if or when they will ever return to the countries they once called home.
Team Refugee: Ten Displaced Lives
Five of the refugee athletes who competed in the games were already elite sportspeople before they were displaced from their home nation.
They were Ethiopian runner Yonas Kinde who competed in the Marathon, Congolese Judo competitors Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, and the two Syrian swimmers Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini.
Popole and Yolande took refuge in Brazil when they were there for an international competition, never returning home.
The other five members of Team Refugee were South Sudanese distance runners, all plucked from one of the largest refugee camps in the world, located in Kenya.
Tegla Loroupe, an activist and former Olympian who runs a small Olympic program, discovered and trained the runners at a centre she built near Nairobi, according to Vox and the Tegla Peace Foundation. The runners are James Chiengjiek, Yiech Biel, Paulo Lokoro, Rose Lokonyen and Anjelina Lohalith.
Two Ethiopian Marathon Runners Who Can’t Return Home
Yonas Kinde is a prolific runner and has won many marathon races in Europe already, according to Rio2016, but has never been able to prove himself on the world stage because of his lack of a national citizenship.
Aged 36, he has been under international protection in Luxembourg since 2013, and says it’s “impossible” for him to live in his native Ethiopia.
“It’s very dangerous for my life.”
“I left my country because of political problems. There are many difficulties, morally, economically, and it’s very difficult to be an athlete.”
The Marathon Runner Famous for Public Protest
Yonas isn’t the only Ethiopian runner fleeing home. Fellow countryman Feyisa Lilesa, Rio’s marathon silver medallist, is now famous for his sign of defiance after completing the race on Sunday (above). He was not a refugee before the Olympics—but may be now after deciding it’s unsafe for him to go back home to Ethiopia because of his protest, according to NBC News.
Holding his arms crossed above his head as he crossed the finish line is an Ethiopian gesture of protest. Lilesa is from the Oromo tribe, who have been protesting against the Ethiopian government, and rights groups say hundreds of the Oromos have been killed as a result.
Lilesa didn’t return to Ethiopia with his fellow team-mates, for fear of either being arrested or killed. His family also believed it was better for him to stay away. According to an Ethiopian news site, Lilesa will be seeking asylum in the USA, his case supported by a crowdfunding campaign.
The Courage of Swimmer Yusra Mardini
One of the most high profile members of the team has been swimmer Yusra, featured in a Visa Olympics ad (above), whose story of fleeing Syria is both tragic and heroic. She was one of 20 asylum seekers travelling from Turkey to Greece on a small boat made for only six.
The boat’s engine failed and Yusra was one of only four passengers who could swim—another being her sister. They jumped in the water and swam in the cold Aegean Sea for three and a half hours, towing the dingy to safety.
Yusra currently lives in Berlin where she has been training.
“We Are Like Everyone in the World”
At an IOC event leading into the Games, Yusra highlighted that although she and her teammates are displaced, they are just like anybody else.
At Rio, she famously went on to win her heat in the 100-metre butterfly, while her fellow swimmer Rami Anis set a 100-metre freestyle personal best.
“We still are humans,” Yusra said. “We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something. We didn’t choose to leave our homelands. We didn’t choose the name of refugees.”
In online magazine Vox, Dara Lind wrote that the refugee team, simply by competing, were helping to deliver a message to the world that refugees are valuable members of society—and dispel the myth that they can only be “terrorists or victims”.
“We didn’t choose to leave our homelands. We didn’t choose the name of refugees.” ~Yusra Mardini
“When people in the US and other countries far removed from the front lines of the crisis talk about refugees, they often talk about terrorists or frauds,” Lind wrote. “The point of the Refugee Olympic Team is to change that: to make viewers see refugees as heroes who’d be a credit to any country they lived in.”
Writer Roger Cohen of the New York Times observed how the whole world has been keen to join in celebrating refugees for two weeks in Rio, yet so many aren’t willing to welcome them into their own country. But if the IOC and Team Refugee have had any influence, it may just be that the 2016 Olympics has shifted some of those attitudes.
The members of Team Refugee will continue discussions with their trainers and the IOC to decide what they’ll do with their athletic careers next.