Shimmering lights and exuberant fanfares from the crowd cheer for the countries at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics. From the entrance of Greece to Zimbabwe, each country smiles with pride, feeling a sense of identification. Yet a group of ten athletes holds a miscellaneous, peculiar flag with the Olympic symbol: Team Refugee.
At first glance, one may think that the country is defying the logistics of the game; in the Olympics, each person represents his or her country, and here a team representing over 60 million people that are from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and more, is present. However, it was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that formed the new Team Refugee as an effort to “send a message of hope for all refugees around the world.” The committee has provided financial aid for the athletes whilst competing in the Olympics and even after the games. Their decisions fueled a tremendous support from the public, as people from all over the world cheered loudly for the refugees.
The team consisted of 10 refugees who were selected from a pool of 40 candidates. Even though Team Refugee has gained no medals, many of these athletes have reached their personal best in the races: Ramis Anis, for example, has achieved his personal best in swimming freestyle. They also had the chance to fulfill their hopes of competing in the Olympics : Anis, who fled war-torn Syria in 2015, expressed his feelings of how “wonderful…[it was] to compete in the Olympics” and how he “didn’t want to wake up from this dream.” The games were not just an opportunity for them, but a pivotal moment for them, as Yusra Mardini who is also a swimmer that rescued 20 people who were fleeing Damascus states that she wants the world to think that “refugees are normal people who had lost their homelands and lost them, not because they wanted to run away and be refugees.” Anis and Mardini are only two of the ten athletes who have gained hope from the games; each of the ten athletes possess intricate and heart-shaking stories yet to be told.
“We complete like human beings, like the others” – Kindie
Amidst the high praises of Team Refugee, there have been some concerns rising in the media. Roger Cohen, a columnist and journalist for the New York Times, raised some issues with how the society reacted to the 10 athletes in his NYT article “ The World Loves Refugees, When They’re Olympians.” He argued that the public shows concern and support to the refugees only when they are on the Olympics, not when they are suffering at refugee camps and dying without a voice. Furthermore, he poses a startling question: “ After the fanfare, will anyone remember [the refugees]?” It is true that in a world where we concentrate on competition and global events like the Olympics, serious world issues like the refugee crisis dim away from our focus. Even in the media this month, most articles and reporters reported about the games, certain athletes, and their achievements rather than the influx of refugees and their death tolls. However, it is vital for the world to not lose focus on those who are undergoing serious physical and emotional pain, as refugees too once had a loving family and purpose to live for.
“Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do anything” – Yiech Pur Biel, runner
This is not to say that including Team Refugee as part of the Olympics should stop. In a world where the word “refugee” does not spark any feelings to some, it is necessary to highlight who refugees are and listen to their stories. We must be aware that there are more than just the ten refugees who showed up on the media; there are more than 60 million people who are in pain today. While the Olympics came to an end last week, we must never forget the great courage and hope the ten Olympians showed—and the millions who are suffering.
—Sarah Oh (’19)