By Robin Wright for The New YorkerOmar competed in the women’s two hundred metres, a middle-distance race. Beating her personal record, at 32.16 seconds, she still finished last—so far behind that the camera couldn’t keep her in the frame—but the crowd roared when she completed the race.
“We know that we are different from the other athletes,” Omar said in Beijing. “But we don’t want to show it. We try our best to look like the rest. We understand we are not anywhere near the level of the other competitors here. We understand that very, very well. But, more than anything else, we would like to show the dignity of ourselves and our country.”
Omar returned to Somalia determined to improve for the 2012 Olympics, in London. But the viciousness of Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, eventually forced her to flee. She journeyed through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya, then boarded a smuggler’s boat in the hope of reaching Europe, where she planned to find a coach. In April, 2012, just three months before the Summer Games, she drowned somewhere in the Mediterranean, as thousands of other refugees have.
The United Nations estimates that there are now more than sixty-five million people forcibly displaced from their homes. More than twenty-one million are refugees, most under the age of eighteen. More than half of these fled from one of three countries—Somalia, Afghanistan, or Syria. Ten million forcibly displaced people are stateless. The number of the displaced goes up by an average of thirty-four thousand every day.
When the Games begin in Rio de Janeiro, the opening ceremony, on Friday, will pay tribute to the world’s displaced and stateless persons. During the parade of nations, a team of ten young refugees will enter Maracanã Stadium as their own team—a first in Olympic history.
The ten team members—six men and four women—were announced in June. All have fled conflicts in their home countries. There are two swimmers from Syria, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia, and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. They were selected by the International Olympic Committee from among forty-three athletes nominated for the team. Their talents, their refugee status, and their personal situations were all factors in the final decision, the I.O.C.’s Rachel Rominger told me.
In announcing the team, Thomas Bach, the president of the I.O.C., said, “These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village, together with all the athletes of the word. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honor, and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium.” Bach continued, “These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills, and strength of the human spirit.”
The Olympians’ individual stories of struggle mirror Samia Yusuf Omar’s saga. Yusra Mardini, a teen-ager from Damascus, is a swimmer who put her talents to the test last September, when the inflatable dinghy she took alongside other refugees, sailing from Turkey to Greece, began taking on water in churning seas. Baggage was thrown overboard as the boat threatened to sink. “There were people who didn’t know how to swim,” Mardini said recently. “It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain.” With her sister Sarah, Mardini got out of the boat and into the water and, for more than three hours, helped push the dinghy toward land. “I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days,” she said. She will compete in the women’s two-hundred-metre freestyle.
Rami Anis, a swimmer, will compete in the men’s hundred-metre butterfly, at a time when his home town of Aleppo—Syria’s former commercial center—is under siege. Much of the city, which dates back millennia, has been destroyed. Anis fled to Turkey, where he trained but could not compete because he did not have citizenship. “It’s like someone who is studying, studying, studying, and he can’t take the exam,” he said this summer. Like Mardini and thousands of other refugees trying to get into Europe, he took a dinghy to Greece, eventually making his way to Belgium.In July, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi posted pictures, on its Facebook page, of Ambassador Robert Godec out for a run with the five Olympians living in Kenyan refugee camps. Yiech Pur Biel, who will compete in the men’s eight hundred metres, fled the conflict in South Sudan in 2005, when he was ten. Speaking about his Olympic team last month, he told Al Jazeera, “I want it to help remove the title ‘refugee’ and show that we are more than that.” James Nyang Chiengjiek (men’s four hundred metres) fled South Sudan at the age of thirteen to avoid becoming a child soldier; he had to borrow shoes to start running. Paulo Amotun Lokoro (men’s fifteen hundred metres) herded cattle in South Sudan until the conflict forced him to flee. Anjelina Lohalith (women’s fifteen hundred metres) was separated from her parents in South Sudan when she was six; she has not been able to communicate with them since. Rose Nathike Lokonyen (women’s eight hundred metres) escaped South Sudan at the age of ten. Yonas Kinde, who fled Ethiopia, will run the marathon for the refugee team. He now lives in Luxembourg, where he drives a taxi when he’s not training.
The judokas have been refugees twice over. Yolande Bukasa Mabika was separated from her parents as a small child during fighting in the Congo; she doesn’t remember much else. She ended up at a center for displaced children in Kinshasa, the capital, where she learned judo. Her teammate Popole Misenga was also taken to Kinshasa as a child, after his mother was murdered and he was found wandering in the rain forest. Both Congolese athletes competed in the 2013 World Judo Championship, in Rio, but their coach confiscated their passports and took the money allocated for the trip. For the second time, they fled, this time into the streets of Rio, where they became refugees in yet another country, with no home, family, friends, job, or funds. When Mabika was selected for the Olympic team, she said, “Perhaps my family will see me and we will reunite.”