Team Refugees: Looking to the future
In August, 10 refugee athletes made history by competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team.
Their achievements, against all odds, won hearts and minds across the world.
What has happened to them since? Where are they now and what are they up to? How has the experience affected their lives?
Tegla Loroupe, 43, Kenya, Refugee Team Leader
Tegla Loroupe is a constant reminder of what fierce determination, perseverance, and humility look like.
A champion distance runner, peace ambassador and, recently, the leader (Chef de Mission) of the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio, she grew up in Kenya’s conflict-prone far north where she saw at first hand the devastating and negative effects of conflict.
As a result of the team's global success, she was named the 2016 UN Person of the Year in October. “I was really honoured and I felt that, all the heavy things on my back, it was worth it.”
The 43-year-old Kenyan admits that the idea of refugees running in the Olympics at first seemed inconceivable. “When I started to talk with UNHCR, the idea of refugees going to the Olympics was out of bounds, but we wanted to do something for peace,” she said.
"These people did not ask to be refugees.”
She petitioned the International Olympic Committee and, months later, trial races were held in Kenya’s refugee camps. She knew that preparing the athletes for the Olympics would be no easy task.
The confirmation that there would be, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team, the enthusiastic welcome they received at the opening ceremony in Rio, and the message of encouragement from Pope Francis, were all historic moments for her.
She hopes the success will help her improve her training centre in Nairobi. “Already the door has been opened for us," she said. "Some of our athletes have become ambassadors and spokespeople as a result.”
Tegla embraces the nickname “mother to the motherless,” as she is fondly referred to by the athletes. “I will never say no to this name, I am proud to be their mother," she said. "These people did not ask to be refugees.”
Yusra Mardini, 18, Syria, 100-metre freestyle
Yusra Mardini is knuckling down after a whirlwind year. Since competing in Rio, the Syrian swimmer has addressed world leaders, met Pope Francis and been honoured with an array of awards.
Now she is training hard to achieve her dream of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The Games may still be four years away, but rigorous training, boot camps and competitions already dominate Yusra’s schedule. If in doubt, you will find her in the pool.
“Since Rio I’ve been training hard,” Yusra told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “But I’ve also been thinking a lot about what I can do to help refugees across the world.” Yusra is still concerned about her homeland, Syria. Much of her extended family is still in Damascus, living in difficult circumstances.
"I’ve also been thinking a lot about what I can do to help refugees across the world.”
Yusra, 18, said her own experience of flight and exodus had made her determined to help keep the refugee issue high on the world’s list of priorities. She is keen to develop skills as a motivational speaker, building on high-profile appearances such as an address to the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York last September.
“The most important thing in my life is swimming,” she said. “Then speaking and doing things to help refugees would come next. Of course, studying is very important but I feel there’s more to be done with speaking to the world at this time.”
Yiech Pur Biel, 21, South Sudan, 800 metres
For Yiech Pur Biel, the Olympics did more than allow him to showcase his sporting prowess on a world stage. It was a passage into the history books and an incredible experience that reconnected him with his family after almost 12 years.
He had been separated from them when he fled South Sudan in 2005. Through social media his mother found out that he was in Rio and, with UNHCR’s help, managed to re-establish contact.
“It was a great thing to speak to my mother after 12 years,” he said.
Yiech, 21, has assumed the informal role of ambassador for refugees. “I have another family too now, one of refugees, 65.3 million of them,” he said.
He has been busy since Rio, shuttling from one high-profile event to another. From attending the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees to witnessing the handover of the UNHCR #WithRefugees petition at the UN General Assembly, his message has been the same: a refugee is a person just like everyone else.
“I have another family too now, one of refugees."
His experience has given him great opportunities, he said. “I now have a chance to share my story and this has motivated many people. Travelling has given me room to share my story with the world.”
He is training hard for Tokyo 2020, where he hopes to break the 800-metres world record held by Kenyan athlete David Rudisha, whom he regards as a role model.
“When I met Rudisha in Rio, I told him I will break your record in Tokyo,” he said. “He encouraged me and told me to go ahead and break it.”
Rami Anis, 25, Syria, 100-metre butterfly
"My life has, indeed, changed," said Syrian swimmer Rami Anis as he reflected on the months since the Games. "The Olympics strengthened my resolve. Now I want to focus on competing.”
Rami, 25, said media offers and messages of support from celebrities, had continued to flood his Facebook page. Sitting on the sofa in his tracksuit sipping tea, Rami said he had enjoyed the Rio experience, although it felt stressful at the time.
In Belgium, his local municipality acknowledged his achievement in a special ceremony and he spoke to refugee schoolchildren about developing their talents and pursuing their dreams.
"Now I want to focus on competing.”
Rami said he had improved on his time in the pool. In Rio he swam the 100 metres butterfly in 56.2 seconds in his heat and since then he has shaved more than one second off his time. He knows that to qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2020 he needs to be below 54 seconds and that is his goal.
Despite dissolving the official Refugee Olympic Team, the International Olympic Committee has pledged to continue its financial support for the 10 athletes that make up the team until Tokyo 2020.
Rami’s monthly payment goes towards club fees, training camps and participation in competitions, as well as buying kit. Visa has given him a one-off sponsorship grant. "There were promises made in Rio so I knew there would be support, I didn't think it would be this generous though."
Rami still finds the language and culture in Belgium a challenge. Outside the pool, he spends some of his free time with his team-mates. He has just completed an integration course with his brother and father, where they learned about life in Belgium, and how to fit in and find work.
Yonas Kinde, 36, Ethiopia, marathon
It was just four months ago that Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde competed in his first Olympics, but since then he has changed in many ways. The closely cropped hair he had when he crossed the finish line in Rio has become a mini-Afro.
He says he grew it “because it’s cold” on the track in Luxembourg.
This is just one way the 36-year-old is adjusting to life since Rio. He is attending language classes and is clearly comfortable chatting in both Luxembourgish and French. He has also started coaching a 23-year-old Eritrean named Abiel.
“After one race I spoke to him and said ‘you have to train with me’,” he said. “’This is good for you’, and then he continued.”
“To compete in Tokyo is my goal.”
Yonas has landed a training contract at a sports complex in Luxembourg, where he uses the massage and physio skills he studied in Ethiopia. His hope is that the six-month experience will lead to bigger things.
“My situation is very difficult. My family is in Ethiopia still. My goal is to have a job with [a full-time] contract … I want to bring my wife and my daughter to Luxembourg.”
Bureaucracy means it is still unclear whether achieving this family goal is within reach, but Yonas is optimistic about another objective.
“To compete in Tokyo is my goal,” he said with quiet confidence, well- aware he will be 40 when the world’s top athletes gather in Japan in 2020. He said he wanted to represent Luxembourg and was applying for citizenship.
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 21, South Sudan, 1,500 metres
Travelling to the Olympics was the realization of a dream that Anjelina Lohalith had since she was a child: to fly. The 23-year-old distance runner was overwhelmed by the welcome the team received in Rio.
“When we were welcomed by the crowd, it was so emotional for me that I shed tears,” she said.
Carrying out errands for her mother as a child in South Sudan involved a lot of running, something she took casually at the time. Her life has changed since she ran in the 1,500 metres in Rio.
“For me it was like a dream, because I never thought that one day, one time, I would be able to run like this,” she said.
"It is a matter of ignoring the status of being a refugee and just focus on your life.”
She is focusing on Tokyo 2020 and other big races before then. Since Rio, she has travelled to Uganda and Canada where she attended the One Young World Summit in Ottawa. The summit is a global forum for youth leaders who discuss global issues and develop solutions "to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
“It has really become a great chance for me to encourage many people in the refugee camp who have a lot of hope now,” she said.
Her message was clear, especially to young refugee women. “If others can break the world record, what will stop me breaking the world record?" she said. "It is a matter of ignoring the status of being a refugee and just focusing on your life.”
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, South Sudan, 800 metres
For Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 21, her appearance at the Rio Olympics, when she led the refugee team into the opening ceremony, was nothing short of a miracle.
“The Olympics was amazing,” she said. “When I was elected the flag bearer and we marched into the Maracaña Stadium, people all over the world cheered for us.”
"People all over the world cheered for us.”
The experience was a first, not only for Rose but also for refugees all over the world. Since then she has trained with steely determination, aiming to improve her times in her chosen specialism of the 800 metres.
“It gave me passion to continue with the training. I ran with [Caster] Semenya (women's 800 metres gold medal winner) and at least I need to train hard so that I can catch up with her,” she said.
Rose is keen to continue her studies and is interested in computers and community development. She has travelled to countries including Switzerland and Sweden. In Sweden, she met Pope Francis, who paid a two-day visit to the country as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
“It was amazing because he shook my hand,” she said with a laugh.
She feels motivated to encourage others. “I know that being a refugee doesn’t mean you can’t do anything that others are doing. It is just a status,” she said.
James Nyang Chiengjiek, 28, South Sudan, 800 metres
For runner James Nyang Chiengjiek, one of the highlights of his Rio Olympics experience was meeting the Brazilian football star Neymar.
“He told us to forget the life that you passed through before and focus on what you are going to be in future," the South Sudanese refugee recalled. "Work hard and respect others.”
James, 24, who now lives in Kenya, believes sport can take him further than he ever imagined. “If you take sports seriously it can make you ... somebody better," he said. "It can bring people together and make people have peace among themselves.”
He has his sights on the 2017 World Championships in Athletics and he is hopeful that other refugees will also have the chance to compete. “I’m wishing more people in refugee camps will go to these races because, as refugees, we have to work very hard to move to the next level," he said.
“I want to help other young refugees in the camps,”
His goal is to run in the 400 metres at Tokyo 2020, which he sees as the ultimate challenge. “My dream always is to win gold," he said. "I know many are wishing for that gold and for me it’s a matter of believing in myself and working very hard.”
He also hopes to continue studying engineering. He knows others look up to him and he wants to emulate his mentor, the Kenyan distance runner Tegla Loroupe, the team leader. “I want to help other young refugees in the camps,” he says.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24, South Sudan, 1,500 metres
Paulo Amotun Lokoro smiled as he recalled his Olympic experience. “It was so amazing for me as a refugee to experience so many things and meet different people from different nationalities,” he said.
In his 24 years, he had never been anywhere except his native South Sudan and Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. His success in running earned him a position in the Refugee Olympic Team and a place in the 1,500 metres race.
He admits that he was awestruck by the legendary Maracanã Stadium and intimidated when he saw famous faces in the line-up. “I met champions I have only seen on TV and heard of on the radio. I didn’t know if I would be able to run with them but I had to be tough and do my best,” he said.
"I think I can become a great runner."
He may not have won any medals but he left Rio wiser and more confident. Paulo is determined to improve on the track and compete at Tokyo 2020 with renewed energy as a marathon runner. He hopes to finish his studies and support his family in South Sudan.
Above all, he wants to make refugees all over the world proud. “Before the Olympics I didn’t have much training and I made it to Rio,” he said. “Now with more time to train, I think I can become a great runner and make my fellow refugees proud.”
Popole Misenga, 24, Democratic Republic of the Congo, judoka
Since the end of the Olympic Games in Rio, the 24-year-old judoka Popole Misenga has been preoccupied with the possibility of reuniting with his siblings still living in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just before the Games, he broke down in tears during a press conference as he spoke about the lack of contact with his relatives since his childhood. He said he hoped for some contact with them as a result of his participation in the Games --- and it happened.
“I’m alive! I’m alive!” he shouted into his mobile when he received a call from one of his brothers.
“This was the most important thing for me since the end of the Games. I want to take my two brothers and one sister from DRC to Rio,” he said. “They also deserve the chance to rebuild their lives in another country,”,Popole told UNHCR.
Popole sought asylum in Brazil after travelling there to compete in the 2013 World Judo Championships, together with Yolande Mabika. He now lives in Brás de Pina, a poor community on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
"I want to compete in Tokyo for a medal.”
With Tokyo 2020 in mind, he trains from Monday to Saturday with the same coach that prepared him for the Rio Games. “I didn’t have enough time to prepare myself for the Olympic Games in Rio,” he said.
“But I’ll have four years up to 2020, and I want to compete in Tokyo for a medal,” he added, despite not knowing if there would be another Refugee Olympic Team and if he would be part of it.
Another important factor in his life was becoming a father in November.
“I’m having a more stable life and being able to better support my family,” he said. “I also want to help children from DRC, because I know the difficulties they’re facing there. It’s part of my duty to support youngsters through sports.”
Yolande Mabika, 28, Democratic Republic of the Congo, judoka
Every day, before leaving for training in the same institute where she prepared for the Rio Olympics, the Congolese judoka Yolande Mabika visits her Facebook page. Her social life has become busy. “I’m now a cooler person than I used to be, smiling more,” she told UNHCR. “Sadness was part of my previous life.”
Even with a demanding training routine from Monday to Saturday, which includes an intensive Portuguese language course, Yolande, 29, finds time to attend functions such as promotional lunches and events with companies that sponsored the Rio 2016 Olympics.
She sought asylum in Brazil after travelling there to compete in the 2013 World Judo Championships.
With a grant from the International Olympic Committee and other sponsors, she has been able to move from a shared room to a new house, where she lives alone. She plans to set up an organization to provide sports activities – mainly judo – to vulnerable children. “Sports have been part of my life and will stay with me forever.”
“Now, it’s my turn to help the most vulnerable.”
Language remains a barrier, however. “To set up my organization, I need to have an academic degree. This is difficult, but I’ll get there.”
With the support of her coach, Yolande is assisting some of the teachers in the institute where she trains. She is also acting as volunteer in activities that support vulnerable populations in Rio.
Recently, she worked as waitress in a restaurant run by a Syrian refugee chef which provided food for homeless people. “When I arrived in Brazil, a lot of people helped me to get food,” she said. “Now, it’s my turn to help the most vulnerable.”
The sense of representing a cause is still a strong feeling for Yolande. “I’m still representing the refugees, and I’m still part of this story.”
Warda Aljawahiry contributed to this series from Belgium, Josie Le Blond from Germany, Alex Court from Luxembourg, Luiz Godinho and Diogo Felix from Brazil, and Catherine Wachiaya and Mary Theru Wambui from Kenya.