Tokyo Olympics: Heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the 29-member Refugee team
Following the successful participation of ten refugee athletes at the Rio Games, the IOC in the year 2018 announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would also have participation from Refugee athletes.
Someone who has been forced to flee their country due to war, religious or political reasons and take shelter in a different country.
The aforementioned is what the word 'Refugee' means, according to various English dictionaries.
Refugees are usually unwilling to go back to their homeland, mainly due to the fear of persecution if they enter their country back. According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) more than 68% of the total refugees in the world come from five countries alone – Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.
Refugees are typically devoid of basic necessities like proper healthcare, access to clean water, limited education while they live in inhumane conditions. Besides, they also fall prey to discrimination, sexual violence and human trafficking.
Refugees struggle in sports as well, as they are bereft of the opportunities to represent their respective nations. Hence in order to provide them with the opportunity to compete with the best in the world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics decided to allow the participation of a new team – Refugee Olympic Team.
Under the banner of this team, ten refugee athletes from countries like Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo competed alongside around 11,000 athletes from across the globe at the 2016 Rio Games.
"This will be a symbol of hope for all refugees in the 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," the IOC President Thomas Bach had said then.
Though none of the ten athletes was able to clinch a medal in Brazil, the initiative taken by the IOC was appreciated from various quarters of the world.
Following the successful participation of ten refugee athletes at the Rio Games, the IOC in the year 2018 announced that much like the 2016 Olympics, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would also have refugee athletes competing under the flag of the Refugee Olympic Team.
The Refugee Olympic Team for the Tokyo Olympics is expected to be much stronger, with the contingent growing from a mere ten to a whopping 29! The twenty-nine athletes who are expected to be in action at Tokyo belong to thirteen host National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and will be seen competing in twelve different sports.
The official acronym for the Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo will be EOR, and they are expected to march second after Greece in the opening ceremony. Besides, the EOR will play under the Olympic flag, and the Olympic anthem will be played for all the official representations, including possible medal ceremonies at Tokyo.
While the twenty-nine athletes who will compete under the Olympic flag includes a lot of new faces, it also includes six athletes – Paulo Lokoro, Popole Misenga, Rose Likonyen, Yusra Mardini, Anjelina Lohalith and James Nyang, who had competed in the Refugee team five years back in Rio as well.
Besides, the team will also be represented by taekwondoin Kimia Alizadeh, who had won a bronze medal for Iran in taekwondo during the 2016 Rio Olympics!
"I always knew as a child that I will compete in the Olympics, I did not know how, but I had the belief," Yusra Mardini can be heard saying in a video profile for the Olympics channel.
Originally hailing from the war-torn country of Syria, Yusra is a swimmer. She, in fact, represented Syria in the international circuit before fleeing the country in 2015 when she was just 17-years-old after her house was destroyed in the civil war. She, along with her sister somehow managed to reach Lebanon, Turkey, from where they were to be smuggled through Greece in a boat. But, unfortunately, the motor of the boat stopped working when they were in the middle of nowhere.
Being the fighter they are, Yusra and her sister, along with two others in the boat, got down of the boat, treaded the water for close to three hours and got the motor working, and reached Greece. From there, they went to Germany, where she currently stays and practices the sport. The Tokyo Olympics will be the second time she will be competing in the EOR team.
A road cyclist who hailed from the country of Syria, Ahmad Wais fled his home country in the year 2014 when the war took a nasty turn. Studying in a university in Damascus, Wais lost a lot of his friends from the university to the war. He currently stays and trains in Switzerland – a country which he entered through Turkey after the Swiss government decided to grant recognition to the refugees.
It is compulsory for Syrian men between the age of 18 to 42 to serve in the military. Since he did not do it and instead fled the country, Ahmad Wais is a wanted man in his homeland for evading service. He has not returned to his home country in more than seven years due to the fear of imprisonment and forcible conscription.
"The reason I decided to immigrate to Germany was because of the fact that I was not really comfortable in my country; I just wanted to be a free woman," Kimia Alizadeh explains to the Olympics channel.
Originally hailing from the country of Iran, Kimia Alizadeh is an accomplished taekwondoin, who had bagged the bronze medal in taekwondo for Iran at the 2016 Olympics.
Kimia has time and again maintained that the oppression of women in Iran is what made her leave the country and settle in Germany. She had then received a lot of flak from the Iranian government but continues to be a star player in the sport.
Masomah Ali Zada
A cyclist from Afghanistan, Masomah Ali Zada, like most of the women in the country, was forced to stop doing what she loves. Only that she did not, but instead persisted and has now made it into the Refugee Olympic Team.
Having spent her early years in Iran, where she was taught the basics of cycling by her father, Masomah returned to Afghanistan when she was ten years old. It was on her return to the home country she realised as to how even little girls are restricted from getting out of their house to play. The fact that Masomah belonged to the minority Hazara community just added to her the flak she and her family faced from the conservationists.
She, along with her family, fled Afghanistan and settled in France in the year 2016 after the objection to her cycling becoming very strong, and she started receiving death threats.
Cyrille Tchatchet II
A weightlifter originally from Cameroon, Cyrille Tchatchet competed for his homeland and finished fifth in the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow, Scotland. But, he never returned home with the rest of the Cameroon contingent after the Games.
Though he has maintained that he is not comfortable disclosing the reasons he does not want to return to his home country, Cyrille fled his team-base in Glasgow and reached Brighton in the United Kingdom and stayed by the roadside. Living under a bridge in a completely new country where he did not know anybody, Cyrille went into depression and contemplated suicide.
But he was helped by some Samaritans who helped him get out of the situation he was in. They helped him relocate to Birmingham and put him in touch with a counsellor. Besides, they even helped him earn asylum in the UK. Cyrille has since gone on to create multiple national records in the UK and will now compete for EOR at the Tokyo Olympics.
Born in the country of Afghanistan, Abdullah Sediqi is a taekwondoin. Having excelled in the sport at a very early age, Sediqi and his family were forced to flee Afghanistan somewhere in the year 2017 due to the increasing violence and threat to life in his home country.
They somehow reached Belgium, where Sediqi earned the IOC Refugee Scholarship and has been settled and training there for the past four years.
Born in South Sudan, a nine-year-old Anjelina Lohalith, along with her aunt, reached Kenya in the year 2022 after escaping from the war. They lost everything they had in the war due to the violence but somehow managed to escape the country with their lives. She was separated from her parents, who wanted her to be safe and sent her away along with her aunt.
It was in Kenya that Anjelina started competing in athletics. She has since grown in stature and has even represented the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team during 2016 in the 1500m Rio de Janeiro Games. The 28-year-old also gave birth to a child after the Rio Games and will compete as a mother in Tokyo.
"I want people to know that being a refugee is not just it. We are humans too, and can achieve great things at the Olympics," Anjelina says in a video to the Olympics channel.
Aker Al Obaidi
An Iranian refugee who is currently settled and practices in Austria, Aker Al Obaidi is a Greco-Roman wrestler. He left his home in Mosul and reached Iraqi Kurdistan after the terrorist organisation ISIS started recruiting young men from his home city.
Sensing danger even in Iraqi Kurdistan as a youngster, Aker left behind his family and kept travelling and reached Austria as a refugee when he was just 16-years-old in 2015. He was granted subsidiary protection a year later in 2016 and has since been on a rapid rise in the international wrestling circuit.
Originally hailing from Bukavu – one of the worst affected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the civil war from 1998 to 2003, Popole Misenga is a Judoka. His mother was murdered when he was just nine years old in the year 2001.
After this incident, he fled to a nearby rainforest and wandered along with the jungles in fear almost for a week before he was rescued and enrolled into a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa. It was here that Misenga took up judo and excelled in it.
He sought political asylum in Brazil after he went there to compete in the 2013 World Championship along with fellow judoka Yolande Mabika. The duo alleged that their coaches locked them inside a hotel room and left with all their money and belongings. They also accused their coaches of locking them in cages without giving them food when they did not perform well back during tournaments in Africa.
Both Misenga and Mabika were granted refugee status by the UNHCR in 2014 and competed in the 2016 Olympics as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
A Syrian born judoka, Sanda Aldass, escaped her home country due to the war in the year 2015. She left her husband and son behind and stayed in a refugee camp in the Netherlands for six months before they joined her back. The family stayed in the camp for three more months before shifting out.
Having practised judo for almost all her life, she continued practising it in the Netherlands as well, with her husband as her coach. While Sanda Aldass gave birth to two more children and was selected in the EOR team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, her husband gained coaching credentials after clearing all the necessary tests in the Netherlands.
A track athlete, originally from South Sudan, Paulo Lokoro used to look after his family's cattle before fleeing the country in 2006 to escape the war and join his mother, who was in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, since the year 2004. He was just 14-years-old then.
While attending a school at the refugee camp, Paulo started competing in various sports. But, it was not until the year 2015 that his talent was noticed. When the Tegla Loroupe Foundation conducted an athletics trial in Kakuma, Paulo impressed them and was given the opportunity to join the foundation.
There has been no looking back since for the 28-year-old who had then represented the Refugee Olympic Team in the 1500m event at the 2016 Rio Olympics and is currently eyeing his second consecutive Olympics under the Olympic flag.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dorian Keletela is a track athlete who is currently settled in the European country of Portugal. He lost his parents to political persecution in the country when he was a teenager and moved in with his aunt.
He started athletics when he was 15-years-old at his home country, and fled from there in the year 2016 along with his aunt. The duo spent more than a year at refugee camps in Portugal and joined a local club. Keletela joined the Athlete Refugee Team Program in 2019 and will now be seen competing for the EOR at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa MohammedJama
A long-distance runner who was born in South Sudan, Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed, escaped his home country due to war and found refuge in Israel. He lost his father in the year 2003 when militants supported by the government raided his village.
Seven years and countless attempts later, he finally managed to cross the border of his country and reach Egypt along with a couple of other people who wanted to escape the country. A week later, they reached the Sinai Desert and paid approximately USD. 200 to a guide who helped them cross over to Israel, just before the construction of the Egypt-Israel border fence.
It was the Alley Runners Club in Israel where Jamal first started running. Since then, there has been no looking back for the 22-year-old as he makes his way to an Olympic debut under the Olympic flag.
These are just select stories from the 29 athletes who will be seen competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the Refugee Olympic Team. The other athletes who have gone through similar struggles and will represent the EOR include Ahmad Alikaj, Alaa Maso, Aram Mahmoud, Dina Langeroudi, Eldric Rodrigues, Hamoon Derafshipour, James Nyang, Javad Mahjoub, Luna Solomon, Muna Dahouk, Nigara Shaheen, Rose Likonyen, Saied Fazloula, Tachlowini Gabriyesos, Wael Shueb, and Wessam Salamana.