Team Refugee | We Meet The Athletes Who Fled Famine and Certain Death to Compete in the Olympic Games
"Sometimes you had training and there was a bomb in the swimming pool"
Words by Caroline Gammell
The diet of an Olympic athlete is a tightly controlled, crucial part of training – and often a closely guarded secret. It involves the right blend of protein, carbohydrates and nutrients, carefully timed throughout the day to achieve maximum results. Portions are measured, weighed and improved upon daily as calorie intake is observed in minute detail.
This diet does not, however, involve leaves, desperately picked from a tree because there is nothing else to eat. It does not involve starving for days and never quite knowing where the next meal is coming from. Yet this was the reality for at least half of a particularly unusual 10-strong squad taking part in this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.
For these four women and six men, worrying about what to eat was only one of a number of daily struggles. Before they could even dream of pursuing their clear talent for sport, they had to contend with civil war, famine and extremism. They saw their homes destroyed, families torn apart and lives turned upside down.
These extraordinary people make up the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), the first of its kind. They hail from Syria, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. They will march at this week’s Opening Ceremony ahead of host nation Brazil, walking behind a common – Olympic – flag to the sound of a common – Olympic – anthem.
"The diet of an Olympic athlete is a tightly controlled, crucial part of training…it does not, however, involve leaves, desperately picked from a tree because there is nothing else to eat…"
As they wave and smile at the crowds, they will look like any other group of athletes who have trained hard for months and are now glad to be at the big event. But each of these people has an incredible story to tell. The youngest member of the team is 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who fled her home last year to Berlin on a perilous journey that took two months.
While making the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, she found herself fighting for survival saving her own life and that of 17 others. Just 30 minutes into their journey from Izmir, the engine of her overloaded boat – designed for six but with 20 on board - cut dead.
Knowing that only she, her sister and one other could swim, she leapt into the water and kicked with all her strength to get them to safety. She is now competing at Rio in the swimming – 100m freestyle.
“It was quite hard to think that you’re a swimmer and you’re going to end up dying in the water which you know the best."
Remembering her journey, she said with a smile: “It was quite hard to think that you’re a swimmer and you’re going to end up dying in the water which you know the best."
While battling through the waves, she spotted a six-year-old boy peering down at her over the side of the boat. “Actually I had to be funny even so close to death because [of the boy]. I had to do some smiley faces at him. Why? Because I didn’t want him to think we were dying."
Yusra learned to swim at the age of three, and quickly rose to become a top swimmer in Syria, competing at the World Championships in Turkey in 2012, aged only 14. But her life was dogged by conflict: “Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war, or sometimes you had training and there was a bomb in the swimming pool."
“Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war, or sometimes you had training and there was a bomb in the swimming pool."
Delighting in the Olympics, she said: "When you’re an athlete you do not think if you’re Syrian, or from London or Germany, you just think about your race. I want to show everybody that it’s hard to arrive at your dreams but it’s not impossible. If I can do it, any athlete can do it."
Yusra is not the only Syrian on the refugee team. Rami Anis, 25, was his country’s fastest swimmer in 100m butterfly and will compete in that discipline this month. Living with the daily threat of bombs, kidnap and conflict, Rami decided to leave Syria five years ago, but thought it would only be for a short time.
"The ugliest thing in life is war."
“When I left, I really thought it would last two to three months," he said. “The ugliest thing in life is war. We always heard the word war, but never understood it, until it happened in Syria. You are away from your friends, you are away from your family. All of us are in different countries, scattered."
He lived in Turkey for four years before moving on again, making the now familiar treacherous crossing from Turkey to Greece, onto Macedonia, Serbia, Hungry, Austria and finally to a safe haven near Ghent in Belgium last October.
“The journey lasted 10 days and it was a very terrible experience," he said. “We could not get proper food, we lived on fruits and juices." The issue of food and hunger crops up again and again for the refugee team.
Half of the squad fled war-torn South Sudan and spent up to a decade of their young lives scraping by in the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in north western Kenya. It is home to 185,000 desperate people, yet earlier this year the Kenyan government announced it was closing it down, leaving the future uncertain, to say the least.
Last year the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, a Kenyan group focused on conflict resolution through sport, visited the camp and held trials there, hoping to find Olympic talent amongst desperation. They succeeded and found five of the refugee team – many of them taking part in trials in bare feet.
"They held trials there, hoping to find Olympic talent amongst desperation…[with] many taking part in trials in bare feet."
Among them was Yiech Pur Biel, 21, who fled South Sudan 11 years ago. His memories of home are still vivid: “It was a very difficult situation because from morning, afternoon and evening you will not get food. Mostly we use the leaves of the trees, then you go and eat them or you get fruit from the tree and you eat."
“That is the worst thing in my life - you can never forget that."
Yiech thinks his parents and nine siblings still live in South Sudan, but as he has not seen them, he does not know for sure if they are alive. When he heard about the chance to compete in the Olympic Games he decided to give it a go and will now compete in the 800m against the world’s best.
“To go to Brazil will be a great moment in my life and a story to my children and grandchildren,"
“To go to Brazil will be a great moment in my life and a story to my children and grandchildren," he said. “Being a refugee is only a name. You can show people that you can be good people; you can leave fighting. Being a refugee, it has given me hope."
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, was another resident of Kakuma, who spent 14 years there before being given a chance at Olympic glory. Her parents took her and her four siblings to the refugee camp from South Sudan when war broke out in 2002 and left them there five years later to return home.
“Maybe after they left us in Kenya they joined the soldiers because I have not seen them since," she said. Also competing in the 800 metres, she was noticed after coming second in a 10km race held at Kakuma, despite running with no shoes.
“I will be very happy to hold the refugee flag because this is where I started my life. Hopefully we can come together as one team even from different nationalities - my dream is I just want to help my parents and siblings, then after that help also some of my fellow refugees as well."
Paulo Amotun Lokoro recalls living and hiding in rural woodland in South Sudan as a 12-year-old while war raged on, surviving on fruit while his sister would run into town to find scraps.
“When the war started we ran away. We ran in the bush, we stayed in the bush. There was no food, so we just ate fruit. Sometimes my sister would run to town and buy maize. She came back to the forest and gave it to us and we would eat."
He will now compete in the 1500m and is confident of success: “I will win. I want to win a gold; I want to be famous. My dream? I want to break the record of the world."
For James Nyang Chiengjiek, 28, it was the threat of being turned into a child solder that saw him flee South Sudan. “My dad went to fight with the Arabs and then was killed. I was just with my mum; the war became tough. Soldiers looked for people to join the army and even if you’re 10 years old you can be told to join… so that’s why I try to escape and look forward to a better life."
He was spotted at Kakuma three years ago and will compete in the 400m. “I know that everything in this world is about working – if you’re given the chance you have to utilise it in the right way and pray to God to give you this chance. My dream is to get good results in the Olympics and to help people if I can."
Each story is as powerful as the other, but what is striking about the first Refugee Olympic Team is their humility, joy at being given a chance and determination to show the world that refugees are human beings too.