The Refugee Olympic Team

Written By – Ronak Pol
Published on 17th July 2016

Now that we have explored the Economics of Immigration and response of countries like Canada to the problem, we can go ahead and appreciate the response of the International Sports community who have come together to nurture talent, while shedding light on Refugee crisis. The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), consisting of 10 athletes, aims to give the world a glimpse of their resilience and untapped potential.

Announcing the squad (ROT) earlier this month, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said it would raise awareness of the refugee crisis, which according to the United Nations stands at over 59 million displaced people.

The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) comprises of two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan.


Syrian Crisis

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According to a BBC report The violence in Syria began in March 2011 and the middle eastern country has been crippled by a brutal civil war ever since. Since then, the United Nations estimates more than 250,000 people have died in the clashes between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces who want him out.

The Syrian Crisis can be widely categorised into 3 parts,

  1. A Civil War was waged in March 2011 when the country was witnessing peaceful demonstrations on account of the Arab Spring, this is when the 1st rounds were fired by the Bashar al-Assad’s government. It is after this that problems quickly escalated. Soon the Free Syrian Army was formed and an uprising becomes a civil war.
  2. Civil war quickly gave way to a Proxy war, Bashar al-Assad’s government was backed by Iran. While the Oil rich Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia started sending resources through Turkey to help the rebels and counter Iran’s influence. Iran responds and Hezbollah, a Lebanese extremist groupnow backed by Iran enters the conflict. At this point the Gulf states respond by committing even more resources to the rebels.
    By mid 2013 we had a clear division of Middle East with Sunni powers on one side supporting the rebels and the Shia supporting Assad.
  3. Cold War by the end of 2013 USA and Russia enter the picture with USA backing the Rebels while Russia backing Assad’s government, After human rights violations by Assad’s government through use of Chemical weapons against its citizens Americas resolve to intervene strengthens. But this is when an internal conflict between the rebels which have now expanded and joined by extremists even from neighbouring countries, give way to a new islamic extremist group known as ISIS (the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria) which instead of fighting Assad, fights other rebels and Kurds (another rebel group made up of Kurdish minority seeking political autonomy) in the north.Now with a Proxy Civil war laced with Russian and American Influence, Syrians have no other alternative but to flee their country and seek asylum as Refugees.

Refugee Olympians from Syria

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The Swimming team comprises of Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis.

Anis is the Syrian record-holder in the 50 fly, but now lives and trains in Belgium, according to the IOC release.

Mardini represented Syria at the 2012 Short Course World Championships, and also holds the short course 400 free record for Syria.She now resides in Germany.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The Mineral Rush


To say that DRC is falling apart would be an understatement. The country has a long-standing history of conflict and political instability, most of which can be attributed to conflict over a plethora of valuable minerals and resources including cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, tantalum and tin.

The government in Kinshasa, the capital, is weak and corrupt. The inability to control its territory has left this vast nation rotten at its core, allowing rebel armed forces to exploit these resources and fuel the continuous conflict.

The remote east has plunged straight into anarchy, carved up by a hodgepodge of rebel groups that help bankroll their brutality with stolen minerals. The government army is often just as sticky fingered and wicked. Few people in recent memory have suffered as long, and on such a horrifying scale, as the Congolese.Alarmingly, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center stated that 2.75 million total Congolese have been displaced and 509,000 more have become refugees as of January 2013.  Based on previous calculations of the death rate and toll in the DRC, Caritas International estimates that some 6.9 million Congolese have now died since the outbreak of conflict in 1998.


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Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika  are the two DRC athletes who will compete at the games. They both dedicated their life to judo and became members of the national team, but suffered from an excessively severe and abusive coaching regime. In 2013, during the judo world championships in Rio de Janeiro, Popole and team-mate Yolande Mabika decided to flee the team hotel and seek asylum.

Yolande Bukasa Mabika is a judoka from Bukavu, one of the region which suffered most during the country’s civil war from 1998 to 2003.

South Sudan

Civil war and Economic instability

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South Sudan should have been a country full of hope five years after gaining independence. Instead, it’s now in the grip of a massive, man-made humanitarian crisis.

After a long-standing Civil war that lasted over 25 years the country finally got its independence from its northern neighbours in July 2011, but the celebrations were short-lived.
The country soon experienced political instability when Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling political party that originally led the way for independence, divided internally and started fighting for power.

Violence spread across the young nation like wildfire, displacing 413,000 civilians in just the first month of conflict.The fighting has continued, becoming increasingly brutal and affecting nearly the entire country.

Since the conflict began, 1 in 5 people in South Sudan have been displaced. More than 2.3 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Just over 720,000 people have escaped to neighboring countries in search of safety, but most are trapped inside the warring nation.In December 2015, the World Health Organization called South Sudan one of the worst health emergencies in the world.

I encourage you to read the external link provided for a more detailed view on the crisis, you can also use the same link to Donate to UN whose is trying its best to help this dying nation.


There are five middle distance runners from South Sudan that will be competing this Olympic.

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith(1500m)   After fleeing war in her native South Sudan at just six years old, the 1500m runner dreams of returning and building her father a house.

James Chiengjiek’s(400m) – After fleeing his home to avoid being forced to become a child soldier, South Sudanese runner wants to use his platform to help other refugees.

Yiech Pur Biel(800m) – The South Sudanese runner, who lived for 10 years in a refugee camp, will compete in the 800m at the Rio 2016 Games.

Paulo Amotun Lokoro(1500m) used to herd cattle for his family in southern Sudan until civil war changed his life forever

Until about a year ago, South Sudanese refugee Rose Nathike Lokonyen(800m) used to run barefoot through the refugee camp she called home.

I encourage you to watch the video linked above to understand their stories and their perspective.


Economic and Political clashes


Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonized, yet the long years of poor governance, corruption, unequal distribution of funds, have crippled Ethiopia’s economy to the point where people continue to die from extreme poverty and hunger.The country now has the second largest poor population in Africa.

Since Ethiopia’s economy depends mostly on agriculture (about 45 to 50% of GDP), natural causes such as drought and sometimes unpredictable flooding puts the entire economy of Ethiopia in distress and leaves many starving.The majority of the Ethiopian population are poor subsistence farmers who grow crops and rear animals just to feed themselves and their families.

Due to extreme poverty and hunger, most children of school going age are out of school and most are forced into child labor, child trafficking and most recently, child prostitution

Coffee is very critical to the Ethiopian economy (with exports around $400 million dollars a year) but altering global prices has put the entire economy in economic turmoil.

Poor governance and political instability in Ethiopia also drives investors away. The war(1998-2000) with Eritrea, a neighboring country  has left the country land locked greatly affecting its trade opportunities.


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“It’s impossible for me to live there… it’s very dangerous for my life.” This is how marathon runner Yonas Kinde, who has been under international protection in Luxembourg since 2013, describes his native Ethiopia. After years of struggle and hardwork, the 36-year-old will represent the first Olympic refugee team at the Rio 2016 Games in August.

Take Away

It is crucial to understand that the Refugee Olympic Team is not just a platform for these refugees to show their talent, but is a platform provided by the IOA for them to share their stories about the difficulties that they and countless others from their country face every single day. It is a way in which they can change not only their own lives but give other like them a shot at humane living conditions.

Stories have the power to change our perspective like no other statistical fact, I hope that these stories inspire and encourage you to be aware of the world around us, to appreciate your own life while showing compassion towards others who struggle every single day for mere existence.



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