Meet Yolande and Popole- Judokas who fled during the Congo war and made it to the Olympics
A look into the journey of Tokyo-bound Judokas Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga, from fleeing Congo war to the Olympics.
"It is my dream and the dream of many Africans. The IOC is recognising us as human beings and giving us an opportunity." These were the words of Popole Misenga to the press when he was announced as one of the ten elites to march under the Olympic flag at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
If you pass by the Brás de Pina neighbourhood in Rio, you'll find thousands of such refugees who are struggling each day to make ends meet. Popole was one of them. A Congolese immigrant with a will to fight for a better future, Popole chose Judo as his weapon.
Popole was no stranger to fighting, though. He had the traits of a true Judoka. These signs were visible quite early in his life. Born in 1992 in the Bukavu province of Congo, Popole witnessed the devastating Congo wars while growing up, the second of which caused more than 5 million deaths between 1999 and 2003, making it the deadliest conflict anywhere in the world after World War II.
Moreover, the region of Bukavu was one of the most affected regions during the war. As if this was not enough to traumatize a six-year-old, Popole witnessed the murder of his own mother and had to flee into the forest for his life.
After wandering aimlessly for a week, he was found by a rescue team who brought him to an orphanage in Kinshasa, the capital city of Congo. The place where Popole found two hopes of survival, Judo and Yolande Mabika.
Yolande, like Popole, was unfortunate to have spent her childhood through war. Separated from her parents and airlifted by the emergency rescue team and brought to an orphanage in Kinshasa.
The orphanage encouraged the children to take up Judo in order to let their emotions out and gather the will to fight. And that is how Popole and Yolande found the reason for their existence. However, it cost them their families.
"I don't know if they are alive if they're well", says Yolande to the press when asked about her family and a tear comes rolling down her cheeks. As she closes her eyes to soak the sorrow in, the atrocities of her past flash in front of her eyes.
As fate would have it, Yolande and Popole met at the World Judo Championships in Brazil in 2013. In an alien land, being in virtual anonymity, Popole lost his first match to a Judoka from Kazakhstan. Yolande was yet to face her first opponent when their coaches locked them in their hotel rooms and fled the hotel with their passports, money and other valuables.
After two days of hunger and a fight through the pain, Yolande managed to escape the team hotel and tried to find help on the streets. She came across the Brás de Pina neighbourhood and was delighted to interact with fellow Congolese who were forced to flee and refuge as Yolande.
Yolande came back to the hotel to find Popole and both of them continued to survive in the Congolese immigrant community. Sleeping on the streets, skipping meals had become a routine. Yolande and Popole survived through various odd jobs ranging from sweeping streets to working in textile mills. Everything with an aim to make it big, one fine day.
All these struggles finally reaped their rewards when both the Judokas found Instituto Reação, a Judo school in Rio founded by the Olympic bronze-medallist Flávio Canto. A perfect setting to hone their skills and an appropriate platform to showcase their talent.
Although their training in Africa up till now was very old-school, they adapted to modern techniques quickly.
"It's very different from the judo we learnt in Africa, but I am now used to the Brazilian style," says Yolande to the press when asked about her Brazilian style of Judo.
"Brazil is my home. I will never forget how the country has received me."
Popole, too has found comfort in Brazil. He married a Brazilian woman and now has a son. After his family being taken away in the most brutal circumstances, in a land so distant and contrasting to his home, Popole has found people who he can call his family.
The jubilation found no limits when they were both announced among the 10 athletes to represent the refugees in Rio Olympics.
"I want to win a medal and inspire refugees from all over the world. Afterwards, I want to stay in Rio. God has made this a magical place", says Popole to the press with a flame in his eyes to show the world what could be achieved if you chose to fight in the direst circumstances.
While Yolande competed in the 70kg category for women, Popole chose to compete in the 90kg weight category. Winning his first match against Avtar Singh of India, Popole experienced the joy of winning. A joy that he seldom experienced in his life.
Now training under the Brazilian team coach Geraldo Bernardes, both the Judokas are excited to have the spotlight on them during the Tokyo Olympics. In the words of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
"Sport is a universal language that transcends borders, walls, wars and other barriers. It's a powerful tool for helping refugees to heal, grow and become part of their new communities. These inspirational athletes are a symbol for refugees all around the world. They show what can be achieved, against all odds, through resilience, determination and dedication to what you love."
And very much so, athletes like Yolande and Popole have demonstrated how sport goes beyond fences and brings people together in order to survive and flourish together. As twenty-nine such elites take part in Tokyo under the Olympic flag, we must pledge and strive towards a future where there is no need for a refugee team. A future is bereft of reckless slaughter and bloodshed.