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This August, 10 athletes will compete in the Olympic games not as representatives of their countries of citizenship, but as refugees. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, there will be a "Refugee Team," composed of individuals from four countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria. The athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including swimming, track and field, and judo.
Refugee athletes are expected to do well in such sports as "Completing Endless Forms" (pictured) and "Waiting Forever In Line."
Here are the stories of a few of these inspiring Olympians:
James Nyang Chiengjiek (age: 28; country of origin: South Sudan; sport: 400 meters) - James is from Bentiu, South Sudan. His father was a soldier who died in 1999 during the war. When he was a young boy he took care of cattle. He escaped from South Sudan when the war broke out, as he risked conscription into the army to participate in the war as a child soldier. James arrived in Kenya in 2002 and stayed in a UNHCR-supported refugee camp. He attended school and started running there. He was selected to train at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2013, and has been there ever since (four others on the Refugee Team also train at the TLPF).
Yusra Mardini (age: 18; country of origin: Syria; sport: 100 meter freestyle) - Prior to the war in Syria, Yusra was a competitive swimmer who represented her country in international competitions. As the war intensified, Yusra and her sister left Damascus in early August 2015 and reached Berlin in September 2015. To get there, they had to cross the Aegean in a small boat. When the engine died, Yusra and a few others—the only swimmers on board—jumped into the water and pushed the boat for 3½ hours to shore. Since she reached Germany, Yusra has been training at the club Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 e.V. which is a partner of the Elite Schools of Sport in Berlin.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika (age: 28; country of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo; sport: Judo) - Yolande is originally from Bukavu, the area worst affected by the DRC civil war from 1998 to 2003. During the war, she was separated from her parents and taken to a children's home. There, she took up Judo, which the government encouraged as a way to give structure to the lives or orphans. As a professional Judoka, she represented the Democratic Republic of the Congo in international competitions. After years of difficult training conditions, she decided to seek asylum in Brazil during the World Judo Championships in Rio in 2013. She currently trains at the Instituto Reação in Rio de Janeiro.
Popole Misenga (age 24; country of origin: Democratic Republic of the Congo; sport: Judo) - Like his Judoka teammate, Yolande Bukasa Mabika, Popole is originally from Bukavu in the DRC. His mother was murdered when he was only six years old. Afterward, he wandered in a rain forest for a week before he was rescued. As a professional Judoka, he represented the Democratic Republic of the Congo in international competitions. Along with Yolande, Popole sought asylum in Brazil during the World Judo Championships in 2013. He currently trains at the Instituto Reação in Rio de Janeiro.
Yonas Kinde (age 36; country of origin: Ethiopia; sport: Marathon) - Yonas left Ethiopia due to political problems. He has been under international protection in Luxembourg since October 2013. He has competed in many marathons and reached the qualifying standards for Rio during the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2015. He currently trains at the national school of physical education and sports in Luxembourg.
Rose Nathike Lokonyen (age 23; country of origin: South Sudan; sport: 800 meters) - After her community was burned by armed men, ten-year-old Rose and her family left South Sudan and arrived in Kakuma refugee camp in 2002. Her parents returned to South Sudan in 2008 but her siblings remained in Kakuma refugee camp. During her time at school, she participated in many barefoot running competitions and in 2015 she participated in a 10 km run in Kakuma organized by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation. She has been training with the foundation ever since.
The Refugee Team is a part of a broader effort on the part of the International Olympic Committee ("IOC") to assist and bring attention to refugees. As IOC President Thomas Bach has said, the Refugee Team "will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society." It's an important role for these young athletes, and we certainly wish them the best at the Olympic Games and beyond.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery in art, immigration is the highest form of flattery in politics. The decision to move to a particular country demonstrates the belief that that country is worth living in. So as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia approaches, it will be interesting to compare the number of athletes who seek asylum in Russia to the number who sought asylum during the 2012 Games in Great Britain.
To make this comparison, we first have to determine how many athletes sought asylum in 2012. I have not seen a concrete count of the number of athletes who "defected" during the 2012 Games. This is because asylum is confidential, and so the British government has not published any figures on Olympic asylum seekers. However, one source estimates that at least 20 athletes and coaches defected during the Games. Cameroon had the most defections: Seven of its 37 athletes did not return home.
When athletes (or anyone) seeks asylum, we can assume that there is a "push" and a "pull." The "push" is the bad conditions in the home country that lead the person to flee, and the "pull" is the good conditions in the country where the person seeks refuge. The "pull" of the UK is obvious: It is a developed, liberal democracy that generally respects human rights and offers opportunities (educational, professional) for its residents. People fleeing persecution (or economic deprivation) would generally be lucky to start a new life there.
The "pull" of Russia is less obvious. For one thing, Russia is not known as a welcoming destination for non-Russians. Racism and xenophobia are problems, and many minorities have been targeted and killed. Homophobia is also rampant, and institutionalized (though the mayor of Sochi claims that there are no gays in his city). In terms of its economy, Russia is not as an attractive destination as Western Europe or the U.S., but it is better than many places. Finally, the Russian language is not spoken by nearly as many people as English, and so this might create some disincentive for potential asylum seekers. For all these reasons, I doubt we will see many athletes defecting to start new lives in Russia.
To be fair, many of the source countries for asylum seekers do not send athletes to the Winter Olympics. But even if they did, I doubt many of them would desire to resettle in Russia. Conditions there are simply not conducive to starting a new life, particularly for people who come from Africa or Central Asia.
There have, of course, been a few high profile asylum seekers in Russia. Edward Snowden is one, but I don't think he deliberately chose Russia as his destination country. Instead, it seems he got stuck there on the way to somewhere else. So the Russians really can't claim him as someone who had a burning desire to resettle in their country.
Another immigrant to Russia is Gerard Depardieu, a "tax refugee" from France who (sort-of) left his homeland due to high taxes and (kind-of) settled in Russia. I suppose in Mr. Depardieu's case, there was a "pull" from Russia, but that seems more to do with his friendship with President Putin (who summarily granted him citizenship last year) than with his desire to seek a better life there. Indeed, though Mr. Depardieu has citizenship and an address in Russia, it is unclear how much time he actually spends there.
The bottom line is, I don't think Russia is seen by many as a desirable place to resettle, and I expect that we won't see many athletes defecting during the upcoming Games. Perhaps the Russians will be pleased by this (Russia for the Russians!). But maybe upon reflection, they will find that it demonstrates a darker truth about the culture and society that they have created.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.