Refugee Olympic Team gives hope and attention to 65 million people living in limbo

Rose Lokonyen Nathike carries the flag of Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
Rose Lokonyen Nathike carries the flag of Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. AP

Yonas Kinde ended the Olympics the way he began them: On the run.

Kinde ran 26.2 miles through the streets and past the beaches of Rio to finish 90th in the marathon with a time of 2:24:08. He finished the race, but not his personal trek, because he is a refugee, and a refugee is always searching for a way home.

“I want to be a symbol of hope,” Kinde said. “I want to keep going. If 65 million people can follow me, that’s more than the population of an entire country.”

Kinde fled his native Ethiopia out of fear of being murdered or imprisoned because of his political beliefs. He wound up in Luxembourg, where he worked odd jobs and drove a taxi while learning French.

On Sunday, he was the last member of the Refugee Olympic Team to compete at the Rio Games.

The team, put together by the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations and competing under the five-ring Olympic flag, is made up of 10 men and women without a country. They have been living in lonely limbo, starting over in strange cities or penned up in squalid refugee camps the size of cities. Many of the athletes have not seen their parents or siblings for years, and some have no idea if they are alive or dead.

For two weeks, they had a home and a family in the Athletes Village, where they roomed together, ate together and discussed how they did not want to be pitied showpieces or public-relations pawns for the IOC. They wanted to send a message.

They are representing the 65 million people who have fled or been forcibly displaced during the largest refugee crisis since World War II. They want to change the perception that refugees are deadbeats or criminals who have upset the equilibrium of countries that have taken them in. They want to erase the xenophobic stereotype that refugees are pathetic squatters who look foreign, speak with a thick accent and can’t be productive members of society.

“We are not animals,” said Yiech Pur Biel, 21, a runner from South Sudan who has been living in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp for 11 years after his village was burned to the ground by rebels looking to kidnap boys and make them into child soldiers. “We can do everything human beings can do. Even if I will not get the gold or silver, I will show the world that being a refugee, you can do something.”

Biel did not win gold, silver or bronze. Like most of his teammates, he was eliminated after one heat. But in that heat of the 800-meter run, he shared the track with Charles Jock of San Diego, also Sudanese, also a member of the Nuer tribe and also once a refugee in Kenya, except that he and his family were able to get out and move to the United States.

“Our situations could easily be reversed,” said Jock, who was born in a refugee camp. “I could be growing up in a refugee camp. I could still be there. It could be me running under the Olympic flag, if I even got the opportunity to run at all."

Said Biel: “We are running under different flags, but I want to say to him, ‘You are my brother.’”

That was the beauty of the Refugee Team — using the Olympic spotlight to remind a world torn apart by civil wars, terrorist attacks and border conflicts that people can find a connection

Fellow team members were at the Sambodromo to cheer Kinde to the finish line as he came down the parade route that is filled with floats, dancers and bands at Carnival time.

His Village roommate, swimmer Rami Anis, 25, left Aleppo, Syria, when the bombings and kidnappings became a constant threat.

“I swam in the Olympics to tell the children of Syria to never give up,” said Anis, who lives in Belgium after years being stranded in Turkey.

His compatriot, Yusra Mardini, 18, became a faceless statistic last summer when she added to the swell of four million refugees from her country. She and her sister traveled from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos with other Syrians in an inflatable dinghy. When the motor gave out, she and her sister jumped overboard into the Aegean Sea and swam for three hours, pulling the boat to shore.

“There were people who didn’t know how to swim,” she said. “I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown.”

Their odyssey continued through five countries and a refugee camp until they settled in Berlin.

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away,” said Mardini, who lives in Berlin. “But because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go. A lot of people in Syria forgot their dreams.

Judoka Yolande Mabika, 28, and teammate Popole Misenga, 24, came to Rio three years ago for a competition and stayed, fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and abusive coaches.

“They were denied food and kept in a cage by their drunken coaches. They managed to escape in Rio but they were living on the street like dogs,” said Geraldo Bernardes, co-founder of favela gyms and the youth coach of Brazilian gold medalist Rafaela Silva, who was born in the City of God favela. He took them in, became their sensei.

Popole’s mother was one of five million killed in the civil war. He survived in a rainforest for a week before he was rescued and taken to Kinshasa.

“I have seen too much, too much death,” Popole said. “I don’t even know what my brothers look like anymore because we have been separated since we were small.”

Mabika hasn’t seen her family since she was 8. She remembers running alone and being picked up by a helicopter. She was raised in an orphanage.

“To this day, there are many people crying,” she said.

Half the refugee team members are South Sudanese runners recruited out of camps by former marathoner Tegla Loroupe, who runs a training center in Ngong, Kenya. They arrived there with no competitive experience and no running shoes.

Biel was separated from his mother when their village was attacked in 2005. They ran into the bush and hid.

“We ate fruit and leaves, whatever we could find for three days,” he said.

When he returned home, nothing was left but corpses.

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 22, tells a similar harrowing story about her village, destroyed by rival Dinka tribesmen. She hasn’t seen her family in 16 years; she heard they were still alive, although “last year the hunger was very tough.” Rose Nathike Lohalith, 23, said she would have been forced into an early marriage if she had not run to Kakuma. James Nyang Chiengjiek and Paulo Amotun Lokoro, a cattle farmer, also fled conscription and spent years at Kakuma before Loroupe gave them sanctuary and nominated them to the Refugee Team.

Kinde the marathoner left his wife and daughter behind in Addis Ababa but hopes to reunite with them soon. On Sunday he shook hands with marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia, who protested police brutality and the recent killing of 90 people at a demonstration in the capital by crossing his wrists above his head at the finish line.

“I wanted to show the sign of resistance because there is no freedom in Ethiopia. My relatives are in jail,” Lilesa said. “Maybe they will kill me, too.”

Lilesa wasn’t sure if it would be safe for him to go home after his brave show of solidarity. Or if he would become another refugee.

The team members aren’t sure how or if their lives will change after marching in opening and closing ceremonies and being honored as heroes in Rio.

Like her teammates, Mabika has never lost hope.

“Maybe because I was in the Olympics,” she said, “My family will see me and we will find each other.”