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Going for Gold, Hearts and Minds: First Refugee Team at Rio Olympics

Going for Gold, Hearts and Minds: First Refugee Team at Rio Olympics

“Having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic games” (Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President).

For the first time ever, the Olympics will host the Refugee Olympic Team, made up of 10 refugee athletes who have no national team. The decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to create an inclusive environment for refugees in the Rio Olympics, is a powerful statement of acceptance of refugees worldwide. The IOC has organized coaches, equipment, uniforms and all other necessities to ensure Team Refugee can participate just as any country would.

The ten athletes, originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, will participate in swimming, athletics (running) and judo. Half of the team, all runners, fled from South Sudan to Kenya, where they are now training together, and will compete in various athletics events. The majority of potential contenders were identified in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, where the IOC organized time trials and then transferred the competitors to a training facility in Nairobi. After arriving at age ten and spending most of her life in the Kakuma camp, Rose Lokonyen, now 23, was excited by the opportunity to leave Kakuma and entered the trials. Lokonyen is aiming for a gold medal, and in describing her experiences said, "Being a refugee doesn't mean you can't do anything. Most of the refugees have talent. They just don't have the chance to express that talent."

Two other members of the team, competing in judo, fled to Brazil from Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another, who fled from Ethiopia for Luxembourg, is also a runner, and is competing in the marathon. The final two athletes, Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini who are swimmers from Syria, fled the civil war, eventually reaching Belgium and Germany. Prior to the civil war, Anis and Mardini both competed on the international stage for Syria. Last summer, Mardini followed the similar path of many seeking refuge and crossed the Mediterranean in hope of reaching the Greek Island of Lesbos. On a boat filled to twice its capacity, Mardini’s swimming ability was tested as the motor on the boat stopped shortly into the journey. With the help of her sister Sarah, they swam the boat to shore, saving all 20 passengers from the peril that many face as they try to cross the sea. Mardini wants to provide hope for other refugees, and “show that even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something.”

This is just one example of the many struggles these athletes have faced on their journey to the Olympics. For Team Refugee, the Olympics will not just be a chance to go for gold, but rather an opportunity to change the hearts and minds of people as they, through their athletic accomplishments, call attention to the 65 million refugees worldwide.

We cannot stay silent in the face of this crisis. Our tradition teaches, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16). Having Team Refugee at the Olympic games will bring further attention to the plight of refugees worldwide, and is helping change the lives of the athletes who now have a chance to compete.  We as a Reform Jewish community, as Americans and Canadians, must continue to do our part to and welcome refugees into our local communities and urge our governments to do the same

Rachel Landman is the assistant director of 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, MA, where she ran the inaugural summer Israel program, which focused on exploring Israel through the lens of science and technology. She holds a degree in biology from Hamilton College and served as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She is an alumna of URJ Crane Lake Camp and grew up at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. 

Rachel Landman

Published: 7/28/2016