News / Middle East

    From Syria to Sudan: Refugee Athletes Train for Olympic Team

    FILE - A Nov. 9, 2015 photo shows Yusra Mardini from Syria posing during a training session in Berlin, Germany. Mardini's family fled war and violence, crossing treacherous seas in small dinghies to live in dusty refugee camps.
    FILE - A Nov. 9, 2015 photo shows Yusra Mardini from Syria posing during a training session in Berlin, Germany. Mardini's family fled war and violence, crossing treacherous seas in small dinghies to live in dusty refugee camps.
    Associated Press

    They've fled war and violence in the Middle East and Africa. They've crossed treacherous seas in small dinghies and lived in dusty refugee camps.

    They include a teenage swimmer from Syria, long-distance runners from South Sudan and judo and taekwondo competitors from Congo, Iran and Iraq.

    They are striving to achieve a common goal: To compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Not for their home countries, but as part of the first ever team of refugee athletes.

    A group of 43 displaced men and women, who range in age from 17 to 30 and have escaped conflicts in their homelands, are being considered for selection to the team called "Refugee Olympic Athletes.''

    Prompted by the plight of millions of migrants and refugees across the world, the International Olympic Committee is creating a small team of refugees who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.

    In what will surely be one of the emotional highlights of the opening ceremony, the team will march together into the Maracana Stadium on August 5 behind the white flag with the five Olympic rings. They will walk in just ahead of the team from Brazil, the host nation that marches last among the 206 national Olympic committees in the athletes' parade.

    The refugee athletes will live in the Olympic Village with the other teams. The IOC will supply them with team uniforms, coaches and technical officials. The Olympic anthem will be played if any of the athletes wins a gold medal.

    The plan was first announced by the IOC at the United Nations last October amid the still-continuing influx of migrants and refugees, many from Syria, into Europe. The IOC set up a $2 million fund for refugees and asked national Olympic committees to identify any displaced athletes in their countries who might be able to reach Olympic standard.

    Pere Miro, the IOC's deputy director general for relations with the Olympic movement, has been the point man in creating the team. Of the 43 athletes selected as contenders for the team, more than half are runners from central and western Africa, Miro said.

    "I was touched by the personal story of each one,'' he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I also was really touched by how much sport means in their lives, not only for the 43, but for all those I met.''

    IOC President Thomas Bach said he expects between five and 10 athletes will make the team. Miro put the figure at between five and seven. The final selection will be announced by the IOC at its next executive board meeting in June.

    "We want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world,'' Bach said.

    Miro said 23 of the candidates fled conflicts in Africa, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Mali. A handful of others left Syria, with a few from Iran and Iraq. In addition to track and field, some of the athletes compete in swimming, judo, taekwondo and shooting.

    The IOC has already publicly identified three athletes under consideration: 17-year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, female Iranian taekwondo athlete Raheleh Asemani, and male judoka Popole Misenga of Congo. Mardini is training in Germany, Asemani in Belgium and Misenga in Brazil.

    Mardini and her older sister, Sarah, were on an inflatable boat with other refugees making the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece a few months ago when their small dinghy started taking on water in the Aegean Sea. Most of the refugees on the overcrowded boat couldn't swim. So the sisters and three others who were also good swimmers jumped into the water. For three hours, they clung onto ropes hanging from the side and helped guide the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.

    The Mardini sisters eventually made it to Germany, where a local charity put them in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club in Berlin, based near their refugee center. They have been training at the pool, which was built for the 1936 Olympics, and Yusra — a butterfly specialist — was selected as a possible member of the Olympic team.

    Asemani left Iran in 2012 for reasons she has not disclosed and arrived in Belgium, where she works for the postal service and trains with Belgium's national taekwondo team. Fighting under the World Taekwondo Federation flag at the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Istanbul, she clinched a spot for the Rio Games. It's possible she could compete for Belgium if she is granted citizenship.

    "It has been such a hard journey. I was lost,'' Asemani said on the WTF website. "Many times in my head I thought it would not happen because of politics, visa problems, lack of money and I couldn't travel to [many] ranking events. ... Rio is a dream for me. Hope has carried me to the Olympics. Now I will give all I have to win.''

    Misenga and Yolande Mabika fled Congo three years ago and sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 world judo championships in Rio. They have been training with the Brazilian judo federation.

    "I've seen too much war, too much death,'' Misenga told The Guardian newspaper. "I want to stay clean so I can do my sport. I represent everyone. I'll get a medal for all refugees.''

    The largest number of potential Olympic athletes was drawn from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the border with South Sudan, a five-year-old country that has been wracked by civil war since 2013. Tens of thousands have died and at least 2 million people have been displaced from their homes.

    The sprawling Kakuma camp houses about 180,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, but also from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Uganda.

    "I was touched in seeing how the people live in this camp,'' said Miro, who traveled to Kakuma in January. "It's in the middle of nowhere. They have nothing to do. The main activity that keeps them motivated and alive is sport.''

    Tegla Loroupe, the former Kenyan world record-holder in the women's marathon, went to the Kakuma camp to hold tryouts and identify the most talented runners. Twenty-three were selected and transferred to Loroupe's training center near Nairobi.

    Speaking to the AP by telephone on Tuesday from the center, Loroupe said the athletes include an 800-meter runner, a marathoner and several 5,000 and 10,000-meter athletes. She said she expects eight to qualify for the Olympics and will accompany them to Rio for the occasion.

    "This is something special,'' Loroupe said. "Everyone can be a refugee, now they have this incredible opportunity to stand out. They want to be ambassadors.''

    Miro said he doubts any of the refugee athletes will win medals in Rio, though that is not really the main point. The powerful symbolism of the refugees' mere presence at the games is what counts the most.

    "They will raise attention around the world,'' Miro said. "We hope the world will get the message. We can show that sport and the Olympic principles are something to believe in.''

    You May Like

    Russian-speaking Muslim Exiles Fear Possible Russia-Turkey Thaw

    Exiled from Russia as Islamic radicals and extremists, thousands found asylum in Turkey

    US Presidential Election Ends at Conventions for Territorial Citizens

    Citizens of US territories like Guam or Puerto Rico enjoy participation in US political process but are denied right to vote for president

    UN Syria Envoy: 'Devil Is in the Details' of Russian Aleppo Proposal

    UN uncertain about the possible humanitarian impact of Russian proposal to establish escape corridors in Aleppo

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Busi
    X
    July 28, 2016 4:16 AM
    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Philadelphia Uses DNC Spotlight to Profile Historic Role in Founding of United States

    The slogan of the Democratic National Convention now underway in Philadelphia is “Let’s Make History Again” which recognizes the role the city played in the foundation of the United States in the 18th century. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, local institutions are opening their doors in an effort to capitalize on the convention spotlight to draw visitors, and to offer more than just a history lesson.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora