Team of refugees conveys message of hope at Olympics

Popole Misenga could not hide his tears, and Yolande Bukasa Makiba next to him had to wipe her eyes a few times, too, when Misenga talked about how long he had not seen his brothers.

"We have been separated since they were small. I send hugs and kisses to my brothers. One day I hope to manage to buy them tickets to come to Brazil," the 24-year-old Misenga told a news conference Saturday at the Rio Olympics, as he was overcome by emotion.

Misenga and Makiba, both from Congo, fled civil war in their home regions as children. Misenga spent eight days in a forest as a 9-year-old and was then taken to a centre for displaced children, where he learnt judo.

Now the two are part of a 10-member team of refugees (ROC), set up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and they are proud to be in Rio and hoping to send a positive signal around the world.

"Sport has transformed my life," said Misenga, who like Makiba stayed in Brazil after the 2013 world championships in Rio. "Here I am representing the refugee team. We are not sad anymore - we are happy."

The 28-year-old Makiba said: "People say refugees have no life, but we can show that refugees do what all people do."

Interest in the refugee team has been huge, and two more news conferences were due to follow in Rio before Friday's start of the competition, with each athlete able to tell a story of hardship, fear and dogged persistence.

"They are not just champions in sport but also champions in life," said Brazilian four-time judo Olympian Geraldo de Moraes Bernardes, who helps train the two Congolese judokas.

Refugee team chef de mission Tegla Loroupe, a former distance running star whose foundation in her native Kenya runs a support programme for refugees, said: "The sport gives them wisdom and courage, the wisdom to fight and not to lose hope."

Also present Saturday were Syrian swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis.

"I hope there are no more refugees in 2020, and we can compete under our flag," the Belgium-based Anis said. "We represent people who suffer injustice. I hope all killings and massacres will end."

The 18-year-old Germany-based Mardini is seen as the face of the team, owing to her looks and eloquence.

"It is absolute an honour to be here. It is a dream for every athlete to be at the Olympics," she said in fluent American English. "Our story is that you have to move on, to continue trying to achieve your dreams."

The news conference was good news for the IOC and its president Thomas Bach, as the organization finally received some praise after being battered for not imposing a blanket ban on Russia over allegations of widespread, state-sponsored doping, and for not allowing Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova to compete as a neutral athlete, similar to the refugees.

"It is a special team. Thanks to Bach, someone as a refugee is also human," Mardini said.

Misenga said: "The IOC removed the sadness refugees were carrying with them."

Last update: Sun, 31/07/2016 - 00:10
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