Rio 2016 – 10 Refugee Athletes and what we can learn from them

“It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
– Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee

The representation of refugees in the media can seem one-sided: their tragic stories, the hardship of their journey and the challenges they are facing in the new environment. It is refreshing to see Thomas Bach pointing out the value and enrichment refugees can add to society. As tremendous as the suffering is, it is also important to focus on how life can go on, and how inspiring the involvement of the Olympic Refugee Team in the games is. Exploring the profiles of the refugee athletes can give inspiration to all of us, no matter how big or small our goals.


Anjelina Lohalith

Anjelina Refugee Team

Home country:
 South Sudan
Refugee in: Kenya
Sport: 1500m running
Story: Anjelina was separated from her family when she was 6 years old, as war swept her country and she feared that her local community would force her into marriage.


“It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just the ‘other people’. They will have that encouragement that they can compete anyways.”

This elevating quote does not only apply to refugees, but to anyone who ever found themselves in a position of disadvantage. Whether it is limited financial resources, physical or mental disability, gender, age, skin colour – unfortunately the world is still an unequal place. However, as Anjelina rightly points out, no one should be limited by their difference or blend into the ‘other people’, but be encouraged to achieve their goals. If she can make it, you can too!

James Nyang Chiengjik

James Refugee Team

Home country:
 South Sudan
Refugee in: Kenya
Sport: 400m running
Story: James fled South Sudan when he was 13 to avoid being forcibly drafted as a child soldier. Like many others his story resembles that of the “Lost boys of Sudan”.


“We all got injuries because of the wrong shoes we had. Then we shared. If maybe you have two pairs of shows, then you help the one that has none.”

“If some of us get the chance to go to Rio then you have to look back to see where your brothers and sisters are. Given the chance, you have to utilise it in the right way.”

What we should take away from James’ words is compassion. Compassion to help the people around us whenever we can. An issue that has come up in connection with the refugee crisis is what would translate from German as ‘social jealousy’. It is mainly people that are living on government benefits or are in financial distress that feel most threatened by the wave of refugees entering their country. Instead of looking at what is mine and what is yours, concentrate on how to can make it work for everyone and share what is given. Even though this goes against the individualistic society and capitalistic principles, James shows how the smallest act of compassion – sharing when you have more than someone else – can make a big difference in that person’s life, without compromising your own potential.

Paulo Amotun Lokoro

Paulo Refugee Team.jpg

Home country: South Sudan
Refugee in: Kenya
Sport: 1500m running
Story: Before fleeing his country, Paulo used to heard cattle to help raise the family’s income. Similar to his fellow refugees from Sudan in the team, he endured a journey similar to that of the “Lost boys of Sudan”. After winning many races in his youth, he can now compete on the world stage.

“I want to be world champion.”

The message is clear – dream big! No matter your story or your background, you have every right to achieve your dreams. I often experience people laughing in disbelief at the notion of wanting to “change the world”; but as Emma Watson so honestly once said: If not me, who will?

Popole Misenga

Popole Refugee Team

Home country: DRC
Refugee in: Brasil
Sport: 90kg Judo
Story: After his mothers death Popole grew up in Kinshasa where he started Judo. Being mistreated by his coach at the 2013 World Judo Championship, he sought refugee status in Rio de Janeiro. He is not married with a son.

“I am not sad that I’m not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”

Popole shows a truly international spirit. Of course each athlete is proud to win a medal for their country, and for a good reason! However, the true beauty of sport and these international events is that people from all different parts of the world can come together and compete peacefully. If we can do it in sport – why not the rest of the time?

Rami Anis

Rami Refugee Team

Home country: Syria
Refugee in: Belgium
Sport: 100m butterfly/freestyle
Story: After being the top swimmer in Syria for 6 years, Rami had to flee to Turkey. Even though he escaped war, he was not allowed to compete due to his refugee status. In quest to make his Olympic dream come true, he made his way to Belgium.

“I would like the world to know that refugees have potential. They are doctors and engineers; they are people with talent. If only given the chance, they will do something with it.”

Underlining the overall message of the Olympic Refugee Team, Rami highlights the worth of each and every person as long as they are given the opportunity. Equal opportunities is such an important concept – whether looking at the developing or developed world. Focussing on refugees especially, it is important to realise that most people did not want to leave their country to live off government support in Europe. Most people want to work, contribute and achieve something. Providing these opportunities is key to integration and a peaceful coexistence.


Rose Nathike Lokonyen

Anjelina Team Refugee

Home country: South Sudan
Refugee in: Kenya
Sport: 800m running
Story: Rose escaped the civil war in South Sudan at the age of 10 and grew up in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya. She had never competed, until she ran a 10km race to qualify for a scholarship and became second – barefoot.


“Maybe if I succeed I can come back and conduct a race that can promote peace and bring people together.”

Rose understands the importance of bringing people together. Racism, nationalism and other forms of discrimination are often the result of the fear of the unknown. Ensuring that people from different walks of life meet and interact is an essential part of integration and ultimately peace. Whether it is sport, music, learning or other events – overcoming barriers and building bridges is the best recipe for success.

Yiech Pur Biel

Refugee Athletes in Kenya

Home country:
 South Sudan
Refugee in: Kenya
Sport: 800m running
Story: Yiech’s story also reminds of the “Lost boys of Sudan” – he fled the country by himself when he was 10 years old. Finding refugee in a camp in Kenya, he started running competitively just over a year ago.


“I focused on my country, South Sudan, because we young people are the people who can change it.”

Yiech reminds us of the responsibility we all have in initiating change. On the grand scale, it is the citizens of a country who should get active to ensure that everyone enjoys equal opportunity and is provided with the basic necessities. On a smaller scale, we are all responsible to make changes in our own lives. We are in charge, and rather than waiting for success and fortune to find us, we need to step up and make sure we are living the life we seek.

Yolande Bukasa Marika

Yolande Refugee Team

Home country:
Refugee in: Brazil
Sport: Judo 70kg
Story: After being separated from her parents as a small child, Yolande took up Judo to deal with the pain. She also suffered from abusive practices from her coaches, and together with Popole sought refugee in Rio after the World Championships.

“I started judo to have a better live.”

This might not seem like the most inspirational quote, but there is still a lesson to learn. Yolande’s story not only shows how one has to take their own life into their hands, but that after the lowest of lowest times – she was locked in a cage and starved for days whenever she performed bad at judo – there is a future ahead that is worth fighting for. Furthermore, Yolande is a great example to show that there are alternative outlets for pain and suffering that can help deal with these emotions – rather than violence or blaming others.


Yonas Kinde

yonas refugee team

Home country: Ethiopia
Refugee in: Luxembourg
Sport: Marathon
Story: Yonas still finds it difficult to speak about the reasons for leaving Ethiopia. He has build a new life in Luxembourg, where he is a taxi driver most of the time, but also competed in European races. Now he has the chance to prove himself internationally.

“There are many difficulties, morally, economically and it’s very difficult to be an athlete.”

As mentioned before – unfortunately the world is not an equal place yet where every individual has the same opportunities. Yonas is the living example that these limits should not hold you back. Don’t let your race, your gender or sexuality define what you want and can achieve. Similarly, don’t be put off by difficulties; if you have a goal in mind, you find a way to overcome these obstacles. Just look at Yonas!

Yusra Mardini

Home country: Syria
Refugee in: Germany
Sport: 200m freestyle
Story: Yusra received a lot of media coverage after her and her sister saved the refugee boat with which they crossed the Mediterranean sea. Now she is dreaming of sometime returning home and swimming for her country.


“I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days.”

We all know that life is cyclical – sometimes we feel like we are getting drowned in work and personal struggles – other times we find ourselves drinking tea and watching the Gilmore Girls without a worry in the world. Often, we need a reminder to push through the hard times and not give up – and Yusra send a reminder that won’t be forgotten too quickly.

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