For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics | KUOW News and Information

For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics

Jun 3, 2016
Originally published on June 3, 2016 5:03 pm

In an Olympic first, 10 members of an unusual team will be competing at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro: a squad made up entirely of refugees.

Those who made the cut include Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, two refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are already living in Brazil, where the games open on Aug. 5.

Agile, fast and relentless, they are training for Olympic glory in judo. Like many refugees, they faced war and hunger in Congo, where millions have perished in violence over the past two decades. But they ended up here in Rio in an unexpected way.

Mabika, 28, recounts in Portuguese how both she and Misenga, 23, were part of the Congo's national judo team when they arrived in Brazil three years ago to compete in the Judo World Championships. During the competition, their coach took the whole team's documents and all their money and disappeared, she says.

"We were hungry," she recalls, "and no one was helping us. I would approach black people like me on the street, speaking French, asking if they were African. I couldn't understand or speak Portuguese then."

Finally, she says, she was directed to a hair salon where many Africans worked. "I cried so much, my eyes were red," she says. Both she and Misenga slept there for weeks.

Mabika says they both became official refugees, but had little support. Her first job in Brazil was cleaning heavy industrial equipment. But she begged people to help her get back to the sport she loved and excelled at.

Local news picked up her story and put her in touch with a judo coach, who has been training her and Misenga.

Misenga says they are now refugees twice over. Both lost contact with their families years ago.

"There were kids who were 5 and 6 who were actually fighting," he says. "I was trying to run away from that. I lost my mom in the conflict. I just wanted to escape. A lot of friends were killed in the street where I was living."

Mabika says she learned judo at a UNICEF refugee center that she grew up in from the age of 10, after she was separated from her family. She joined Congo's national team in her teens.

She says conditions were awful.

"If you didn't medal," she says, "they would starve us. It was a tough life, very tough."

That is why they both decided to stay in Brazil and seek asylum after their coach vanished during the 2013 World Championships.

Misenga has married a Brazilian woman and they have a child. Mabika was able to rent a small apartment just two weeks ago in a favela, or shantytown.

Eight other athletes have been selected to take part on the Olympics refugee team, which will walk in the opening ceremony under the Olympic flag. The other athletes include two swimmers from Syria, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five runners from South Sudan.

The International Olympic Committee, which announced the team Friday in Geneva, calls their inclusion in the games a "signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings" and a symbol of hope for all refugees.

"It's the dream of every sports person to be in the Olympics," Mabika says. "It's a chance you will never forget. If I ever have my own family, I will tell my children everything I have been through in my life to get here."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Geneva today, the International Olympic Committee announced a team that will be competing in the Olympics for the first time ever, and it's made up of refugees. Among them are two Congolese athletes who are already living in Brazil. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro has this story.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Agile, fast and relentless, Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika are now training for Olympic glory in judo. Like many refugees, they faced war and hunger in their native Democratic Republic of Congo. But they ended up displaced here in Rio, far away from their home, in a less-than-usual way.

YOLANDE MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-eight-year-old Yolande recounts in Portuguese how both she and 23-year-old Popole were part of the DRC's national judo team, who came to Rio three years ago to take part in the Judo World Cup. During the competition, their coach took the whole team's documents, all their money, and he disappeared, she says.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We were hungry," she says, "and no one was helping us. I would approach black people like me on the street, speaking French, asking if they were African. I couldn't understand or speak Portuguese then," she says. Finally, she says, she was pointed to a hair salon, where many Africans worked. Both her and Popole slept there for weeks.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yolande says they both became official refugees here, but they had little support. Her first job was cleaning heavy industrial equipment. She was begging people to be able to go back to the sport she loved. Local news picked up her story and put her in touch with the judo coach who has been helping her and Popole.

POPOLE MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Popole says they are now refugees twice over. Both he and Yolande lost contact with their families years ago.

MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "There were kids who were 5 and 6 who were actually fighting in Congo," he says. "I was trying to run away from all that."

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yolande says she learned judo at a Unicef refugee center that she grew up in from the age of 10, after she was forced to flee from her family. She joined Congo's national team in her teens, where she says conditions were awful. If you didn't medal, she says, they would starve us. It was a tough life, she says - very tough, which is why they both decided to stay on in Brazil after what happened with their coach during the World Cup. Eight other athletes have been selected to take part in the team, which will walk in the opening ceremony under the Olympic flag. They include two Syrian swimmers and three South Sudanese runners. The IOC says their participation in the games will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world.

MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Popole now has gotten married to a Brazilian woman, and he has a child. Yolande, two weeks ago, was able to rent a small apartment in a favela or shantytown.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It's the dream of every sports person," she says, "to be in the Olympics. It's a chance you'll never forget. If I ever have my own family," she says, "I will tell my children everything I have been going through in my life to get here." Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.