In March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), a team made up of 10 athletes who no longer have countries after fleeing their homes. The athletes will compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and will march during the Opening Ceremony.
The team will not only help raise awareness of the growing refugee crisis around the world, but will also give the athletes an opportunity to compete. The group includes six athletes competing in track and field events, two Judo athletes and two swimmers. Most of them come from African countries ravaged by conflicts and two fled the Syrian Civil War.
Here’s a look at the athletes and their incredible stories.
1. Tegla Loroupe Made it Possible for Five of the Athletes After Seeing Them at a World Refugee Day Event in 2014
Without Tegla Loroupe, the dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete for five of the 10 members of the team would have been impossible. Loroupe is a Kenyan long-distance runner who holds several records and has competed in Olympics in the past. She’s taken on the role of activist though and runs the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and the Tegla Loroupe Training Center for Refugees, where she trained five of the ROT members.
Loroupe noticed them at an event she organized in 2014 on World Refugee Day with the UN Refugee Agency. She saw talented men and women running in a foot race and decided to create her training facility in Nairobi.
“They at least could have a career whereby they’d be treated as people, with dignity and pride,” she told NBC News.
She really didn’t think that her work would result in athletes being chosen to run in the Olympics so soon, but IOC President Thomas Bach came up with the idea of putting a team of refugees together in 2015. When the final team was announced in March, five athletes who trained at Laroupe’s camp were picked.
“People treat these refugees like criminals. We need to treat them with respect,” Laroupe told the New York Times.
2. Half of the Team Is From South Sudan, Including James Nyong Chiegjiek, Who Avoided Becoming a Child Soldier
All five athletes who trained with Loroupe are from South Sudan, including James Nyong Chiengjiek, 28, who is running in the 800 meters event. When he was 11, his father, a soldier, was killed in the civil war. When he was 13, before South Sudan became independent, Chiengjiek left his home behind so he would not be recruited as a child soldier. He escaped to Kenya.
According to his UN profile, he learned he could run when he was attending school with older boys who were also training for long-distance running.
“That’s when I realized I could make it as a runner – and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it,” Chiengjiek told the UN.
He believes that by running, he might help other refugees get opportunities to share their talents.
“We are refugees like that, and some of us have been given this opportunity to go to Rio,” he said. “We have to look back and see where our brothers and sisters are, so if one of them also has talent, we can bring them to train with us and also make their lives better.”
The other athletes from South Sudan are Yiech Pur Biel, 21; Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24; Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23; and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 21.
Biel’s story, as outlined by Sports Illustrated is also tragic. When he was 10, he fled his home with his mother, younger brother and two sisters. When his mother decided to go to Ethiopia, she left him behind since she could not handle four children and left him with another woman.
3. Swimmer Yusra Mardini Spent 25 Days on the Road With Her Sister After Escaping Syria
Both of the athletes from Syria are swimmers, including Yusra Mardini, 18, who is competing in the 200-meter freestyle. Like so many who fled Syria, she and her sister took a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos in the hope of finding refuge in Europe. They were on a boat with 18 other people. The boat’s motor stopped and there were only a few other passengers who knew how to swim. Mardini decided to just jump in and swim.
After arriving in Greece, they traveled through Eastern Europe, finally arriving in Germany after an arduous 25-day journey. Amazingly, they found their father and a swimming club where she could train, notes NBC News.
“I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days,” Mardini told the UN. “I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”
The other Syrian on the team is Rami Anis, 25. He’s competing in the 100-meter butterfly.
4. Both Members of the Team From the Democratic Republic of the Congo Escaped to Brazil
There are two athletes who escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the team. One is Popole Misenga, a middleweight judoka. Yolande Mabika, 28, is also a middleweight judoka. Both of them sought asylum in Brazil.
The 24-year-old Misenga was only nine years old when he had to glee Kisangani. When he was six, his mother was murdered. He was separated from his family and lived in a forest for eight days before being rescued. He learned to practice judo at a displaced children’s center.
“When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one,” Misenga told the UN. “Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment – everything.”
Misenga and Mabika have both lived in Brazil since they competed at the 2013 World Judo Championship, which took place in Rio. Mabika escaped the team hotel first, according to the Rio 2016 site. She got a message to Mabika, who then decided to not go back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I want to win a medal and inspire refugees from all over the world. Afterwards, I want to stay in Rio. God has made this a magical place,” Mabika told the Rio site.
5. Yonas Kinde Says It Is Dangerous for Him to Live in His Native Ethiopia
The last of the 10 athletes is Yonas Kinde, who fled Ethiopia for Luxembourg, where he’s lived since 2012. In his interview with the official Rio 2016 site, he declined to go into the details of why he left his native country.
“I left my country because of political problems. There are many difficulties, morally, economically, and it’s very difficult to be an athlete,” he said.
Kinde will be running the full marathon event. Last year, he ran a two-hour, 17-minute marathon in Germany. However, due to his lack of citizenship, he hasn’t been able to run at major international events before.
Kinde and the other refugees will be marching in the Opening Ceremony just before Brazil. They will be carrying the Olympic flag and are living in the athletes village, just like all athletes.
“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” Bach said in March. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”