Ten refugees were among the thousands of athletes kicking off the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio last weekend — an historic first.
The team of ten refugees — selected from a pool of nearly 1,000 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, and other troubled regions of the world — marched into Maracanã Stadium following host nation Brazil to deafening cheers.
“The crowd is standing, is giving them a standing ovation,” remarked the commentator. “Such love and admiration for these athletes.”
The International Olympic Committee decided to create a team consisting solely of refugees to call attention to the plight of the world’s estimated 65 million refugees and displaced people.
In a message of unity and compassion IOC President Thomas Bach 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.”
“We wanted to send a signal of hope to all refugees in the world. These great athletes will show everyone that, despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, and most important, through the strength of the human spirit.”
“It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
Among the 10 athletes selected is 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, who along with her sister, saved the lives of 20 fellow Syrians when their boat was in danger of capsizing:
Last August, Mardini and her sister Sarah fled war-torn Syria and embarked on a harrowing, monthlong journey through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, up through the Balkans and Central Europe, to Germany, narrowly dodging capture and death. When their crammed dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, she and her sister, also a swimmer, jumped into the water and helped guide the boat to safety.
Mardini’s story came to public attention in March when she was identified by the International Olympic Committee as a candidate to compete on a new team of refugees, made up of athletes who are stateless or would otherwise be excluded from the Games. She was thrust into the spotlight, celebrated by the news media as a fresh-faced example of Germany’s so-called welcome culture — a story of uplift at the center of the global refugee crisis.
The ten athletes won the attention of Pope Francis, who sent them a personalized letter:
I extend my greetings and wish you success at the Olympic Games in Rio – that your courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity. Your experience serves as testimony and benefits us all. I pray for you and ask that you, please, do the same for me.”
Profiles of the ten athletes are available here. We wish good luck to all competing at Rio!