By Alayna Hutchinson and Allie Judge
Sports have always been a way for people all over the world to find and build a community. Whether you’re an athlete or a fan, feeling like you’re part of a team working toward a common goal is something that bonds people no matter where they’re from. The Olympic Games is one of the most prominent examples of this bond as athletes from every corner of the globe compete with the support of their nation and the world. While the Tokyo Summer Olympics looked different in 2021 due to COVID restrictions, millions of people still came together both in person and virtually to watch top athletes compete on the world’s stage.
The Olympics often give people pride in their nation as they watch people from their country perform at the highest level of athletics. However, one Olympic team that competed this year stands out as it doesn’t consist of athletes representing their home country, but rather the shared experience of having to leave it.
The Refugee Olympic Team was originally established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ten athletes who had been forced to flee their home countries for reasons such as war, violence or persecution competed on that inaugural team. The IOC has stated that the intent of the Refugee Team is to represent a symbol of hope for refugees as well as to bring attention to the global refugee crisis that continues to this day.
For the 2020 Olympic Games, the Refugee Team grew to 29 athletes participating in 12 different sports. The athletes come from countries currently facing devastating conflict, including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.
One notable member of this year’s team is Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ambassador who competed on the inaugural team in Rio in 2016. Mardini gained global attention after she and her sister courageously used their swimming skills to propel an overcrowded inflatable boat filled with other refugees to Greece after the motor stopped working. When they finally reached Greece, they traveled on foot to Germany, where they were able to find asylum in Berlin. Her story was highlighted in the 2021 short film “The Flame You Keep” by Andres Useche, which was featured in the 2020 Immigration Film Fest as a part of KAMA DC’s “Immigrants Contributions in Sports” program.
This year is also the first time that there will be a refugee team participating at the Paralympic Games, which began on August 24 in Tokyo. Six athletes from four countries are competing on the Refugee Paralympic Team in four different events. The International Paralympic Committee notes that of the 82 million refugees worldwide, more than 12 million of them live with a disability.
You can read more about members of the 2020 Refugee Olympic Team here and the Refugee Paralympic Team here. These athletes are a small fraction of the more than 82 million displaced people and refugees worldwide, many of whom struggle every day to have their needs met and their voices heard.
Telling your story can be a powerful tool for addressing challenges and creating change, especially for those who find themselves without a nation to represent them, which is why KAMA DC is dedicated to helping refugees and immigrants share their stories and skills with the community. Find out more about how you can participate in KAMA events here.