For the first time ever, this Olympic Games features a team that carries no flag and represents no single country. They are a team of 10 refugees—just a small representation of the millions of displaced people around the world.
Weeks ago, the 10 athletes received a letter from Pope Francis, who encouraged them before they marched out during the opening ceremonies, receiving a standing ovation and garnering the attention of the world.
Pope Francis wrote,
Your experience serves as testimony and benefits us all. I pray for you and ask that you, please, do the same for me.
Here are the 10 real-life heroes who not only represent the true community spirit of the Olympic Games, but also serve as a reminder of the millions who still need our attention, our help and our commitment to never giving up in making sure that they receive the aid, food, housing and service they need.
Yusra Mardini – Swimmer – Syria
Mardini was just 17 when her and her sister fled war-torn Syria. But, when their overcrowded boat broke down in the middle of the Agean Sea on its way to Greece, Mardini and three other passengers—the only ones on the boat who could swim—did something truly heroic: They jumped in the water and pulled the boat through open water for three hours, saving more than a dozen lives.
Yiech Pur Biel – Runner – South Sudan
A decade ago, Yiech Pur Biel was just 10 years old, and fled the ethnic violence taking over his home country of Sudan all alone. After spending the next 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, he began running, quickly becoming recognized for his world-class talent.
He explained to the IOC that his journey has not been an easy one: “In the refugee camp, we have no facilities – even shoes we don’t have. There is no gym. Even the weather does not favor training because from morning until evening it is sunny and hot.”
James Chiengjiek – Runner – South Sudan
When James was just 13, he fled his home country to avoid being forced to become a child soldier. After losing his own father to war, he became one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ who traveled thousands of miles alone as a child to a large refugee camp in Kenya.
He told the IOC, “If some of us get the chance to go to Rio then you have to look back to see where your brothers and sisters are. Given the chance, you have to utilize it in the right way.”
Rami Anis – Swimmer – Syria
As a young teen, Rami Anis dreamed of representing his home country of Syria in the Olympics. But, after his home city of Aleppo became a center point of bombings and violence, Anis and his family fled the country, eventually making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea with his brother to Europe. Anis eventually made it to Belgium where he’s trained to represent those displaced by violence around the globe. He told Al Arabiya,
Team Refugee is focused on proving itself for future championships after the games. We’re here to show the world that we deserve to compete, and hopefully get assistance from organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and FINA. At the same time, we are aware that we are representing 60 million refugees around the world. My fellow Syrian swimmer (Mardini) are also representing the broken Syrian people who have faced widespread injustice these past few years.
Popole Misenga – Judo – Democratic Republic of the Congo
It’s been 15 years since Popole Misenga has seen his own family, when one of Africa’s deadliest conflicts broke out leaving more than 5 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His mother was killed in the violence and other family members went missing.
In an emotional press conference, he told reporters,
I have two brothers and I haven’t seen them. I don’t know how they look anymore because we were separated since we were small. So I send hugs and kisses to my brothers. If you can see me on television now, you can see that your brother is here in Brazil and alive and well.
Three years ago, he and fellow DRC athlete Yolande Mabika sought asylum in Brazil while competing in the World Judo Championships, hosted in Rio. But, though he won’t be representing the country where his family is, Misenga is still proud to serve an important cause at the games, “We’re fighting for all the refugees in the world. I’m not sad that I’m not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”
Yolande Mabika – Judo – Democratic Republic of the Congo
Along with Popole Misenga, Yolande Mabika sought asylum in Brazil in 2013, escaping violence that has torn her home country apart. Her story is both devastating and inspiring. When she was a young child, she was separated from her parents in the of chaos war, and never saw them again. She was found running alone, and eventually was taken to an orphanage, where she learned the sport of Judo.
She explained to IOC, “My message to the refugees of the world would be not to give up on hope and to keep believing, to have faith in their hearts.”
Yonas Kinde – Runner – Ethiopia
Today, when he’s not training as a worldclass marathon runner, Yonas Kinde supports himself by driving a taxi in the country he now calls home, Luxembourg. The 36-year-old explained the difficulties of life in Ethiopia to the IOC: “It’s impossible for me to live there… 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.”
Kinde told the UNHCR along with winning a medal, his goal is to inspire other refugees: “Of course we have problems – we are refugees – but we can do everything in the refugee camp, so it will help refugee athletes.”
Nathike Lokonyen – Runner – South Sudan
After fleeing violence at the age of just 10, Rose Nathike Lokonyen—who is now 23—spent years in a large refugee camp where she trained by running barefoot.
She told IOC, “I will be very happy to hold that refugee flag because this is where I started my life. I will be representing my people in Rio. Maybe if I succeed, I can come back and conduct a race that can promote peace and bring people together.”
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith – Runner – South Sudan
From the UN Refugee Agency: “Anjelina Nadai Lohalith has not seen or spoken to her parents since she was six years old and was forced to flee her home in southern Sudan … Anjelina has heard that they are still alive, although ‘last year the hunger was very tough.’”
Her talent was discovered while she was living a refugee camp Kenya, and the 21-year-old dreams of inspiring other refugee athletes and one day, reuniting with her family.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro – Runner – South Sudan
His early years were spent as a cattle herder in the area known as South Sudan, but, like many from the region, was forced to live in a refugee camp after his nation became divided by war.
He told the IOC: “I know I am racing on behalf of refugees. I was one of those refugees there in the camp, and now I have reached somewhere special … If I perform well, I will use that to help support my family, and my people.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.