After competing with pride and receiving an outpouring of support in Japan and beyond, the Refugee Paralympic Team showed the power of inclusion for displaced people with disabilities.
As the Tokyo Games drew to a close on 5 September, the Refugee Paralympians celebrated their achievements on the world stage, confident they had sent a message of hope and unity to the world’s 82.4 million displaced people and the 12 million among them with disabilities.
“The whole event was an incredible experience for me,” said Alia Issa, the team’s first woman who competed in the club throw. “The refugee team is not just any team, it is a family that is trying to unite all refugees around the world.”
Often referred to during the Games as “the most courageous sports team,” the six-member Refugee Paralympic Team has overcome more obstacles than most of their competitors just to get to Tokyo, including the often traumatic experience of escaping war or persecution and adjusting to life in a new culture.
Their presence in the Paralympics helped draw attention to the challenges facing displaced people living with disabilities, who are at a higher risk of violence, discrimination and abuse. They often lack equal access to basic services, work, education and sporting activities.
While they did not win any medals, the team’s perseverance was inspiring, prompting an outpouring of support from fans in Japan and around the world. Tokyo school children presented them with more than 10,000 paper airplanes — an image associated with carrying a dream — and Japanese rock star MIYAVI, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, released a music video with a new song, “I Swear,” to images of the Paralympians training.
Their presence in the Games was a victory for inclusion, said Ricardo Pla Cordero, a protection officer for disability inclusion at UNHCR, which works with partners to leverage the power of sport to transform the lives of the displaced.
“Just being there, competing, was so much more important than winning or not winning a medal,” Pla Cordero said. “Having the right to be in Tokyo and compete with others is an additional and important achievement towards the full recognition of refugees with disabilities as people, athletes, and valued members of their communities.”
Two refugee teams made their debut at the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016, growing to a combined 35 members in Tokyo, originally hailing from 12 countries, including Syria, Iran, South Sudan and Afghanistan. This year a Refugee Paralympic Team of six took part in the Paralympic Games, following the inclusion of two refugee athletes in the Rio 2016 Games under the banner of the Independent Paralympic Athletes Team, while the first Refugee Olympic Team of 10 members in Rio nearly tripled to 29 in Tokyo.
The teams, created and supported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in partnership with UNHCR, give qualified athletes who have been displaced, and are therefore unable to represent a national team, an opportunity to compete at the highest levels of sport.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi congratulated both teams for their excellent performances. “Their perseverance and talent are truly an inspiration to all of us,” he said.
“I also want to express my profound gratitude to the IOC and the IPC for believing in refugees and setting the example for others. Through their efforts we have seen first-hand the tremendous power of sport in fostering a more inclusive and equal world,” Grandi added.
“We look forward to future sporting events where refugees, including those with disabilities, will have the opportunity to compete, and represent the millions of people around the world who have been forced to flee.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.