Meet the 10 Refugees Who Will Compete in the Olympics

For the first time ever, athletes who have fled their homelands will go for gold.

Top row, from left: Rami Anis; Yusra Mardini; Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga. Middle row, from left: Paulo Amotun Lokoro; Yonas Kinde; James Nyang Chiengjiek. Bottom row, from left: Rose Nathike; Yiech Pur Biel; Anjelina Nadai Lohalith. (Photos: Courtesy IOC)

Jun 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Elizabeth Rushe is a writer and photographer from Ireland who is based in Berlin. Her work has been published by NPR, Paste Magazine, Vice, and Marie Claire.

BERLIN—A young athlete who fled Syria less than a year ago by swimming for hours across the Aegean Sea while pushing a boatload of 20 stranded refugees is among the athletes who have been selected to compete as part of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Eighteen-year-old Yusra Mardini, whose event is the 200-meter freestyle, will join nine other athletes on the team, the International Olympics Committee announced Friday, adding that the Refugee Olympic Team is intended to be “a symbol for refugees worldwide.”

There are 19.5 million refugees in the world, and one of every four comes from Syria, according to the United Nations. As these individuals navigate life beyond the borders of countries that have been damaged by war and conquest, competing in sport is a luxury of peacetime life many of them have longed for.

On hearing the news Friday afternoon, Mardini shared her delight with fans on her Facebook page, writing, “I’m so happy for that, I can’t describe how I feel and I wanna thank everyone who helped me to arrive to this point.”

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, selected for the Refugee Olympic Team at Olympic Games Rio 2016. (Photo: IOC)

All of the athletes nominated for the Refugee Olympic Team were required to meet athletic standards specific to their sports—and have their refugee status verified by the United Nations—to be eligible for the team, the first of its kind.

“This is a picture-book story for integration through sport and a moving moment for all helpers. Yusra and her sister Sarah are representative of all refugees in sport. Her club, Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, represents all German sports clubs. Thanks to the IOC and Olympic Solidarity for this successful initiative. Now we cross our fingers for Yusra Mardini and the rest of the refugee team in Rio,” said Michael Vesper, chairman of the German Olympic Sports Federation.

Meet the rest of the team:

  • The IOC calls Rami Anis “Syria’s fastest swimmer” in the 100-meter butterfly. After fleeing Syria five years ago, the 25-year-old lives close to Ghent, Belgium.
  • Anjelina Lohalith, a 21-year-old from South Sudan who fled her country at eight, is competing as a 1,500-meter track runner.
  • Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, both from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are judokas competing in the 90-kilogram and 78-kilogram categories, respectively. Misenga, 24, and Mabika, 28, fled the city of Bukavu three years ago, when they could no longer train as professional judokas because of the war.
  • Yonas Kinde is a 36-year-old marathon runner from Ethiopia who fled his home country in 2012 and now lives in Luxembourg. He has been running since he was a teenager. He qualified for the refugee team during the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2015.

  • James Nyang Chiengjiek, from South Sudan, is competing in track in the 400 meters. Chiengjiek, 28, fled his country in 2001 for the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he was offered support by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since then, Chiengjiek has participated in athletic trials and succeeded in being nominated for the refugee team.
  • Rose Nathike Lokonyen, from South Sudan, is competing in track in the 800 meters, 14 years after fleeing her home country. The 23-year-old spent 13 years living in a refugee camp in Kenya, taking part in barefoot running competitions there. Some of Lokonyen’s family still live in the camp, while others remain in South Sudan.
  • Paul Amotun Lokoro, from South Sudan, is competing in the 1,500-meter track event. The 24-year-old fled his country 10 years ago to a new life in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Lokoro went to school and played sports in the camp, and in 2015 he took part in athletic trials held by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, a peace and development organization. The foundation invited him to join based on his athletic standard, and he’s been training ever since.
  • Yiech Pur Bel, from South Sudan, is an 800-meter runner. Biel fled his country in 2005 and spent the next nine years living at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

This year’s games are slated to begin on Aug. 5, when the refugee team will walk under the Olympic flag for the opening ceremonies. Lokonyen told the IOC, “I will be very happy to hold the refugee flag because this is where I started my life, and where I saw other people. Hopefully we can come together as one team even from different nationalities and help us interact with people from across the world from all different countries.”

More than 10,000 athletes are expected to compete in this year's games, hailing from more than 200 countries.

“Being a refugee is only a name,” Biel told the IOC. “From that journey from Kakuma to this place, I call myself an ambassador for refugees.”