Swimming beyond borders

Syrian swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis,

Syrian swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis will be competing at the Rio Olympics.

The Rio Olympics begins on Friday and a refugee team will compete for the first time in the games’ history.

While the lead-up to the Olympics has been dominated by safety concerns and doping scandals, the story of these remarkable refugees is an uplifting celebration of courage and resilience.

The team consists of 10 refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each of the athletes has overcome tremendous adversity to continue their Olympic dreams.

One of the representatives is 18-year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini.

Many professional swimmers train for hours in their quest for Olympic glory, but swimming was a matter of life and death for Ms Mardini.

During the Syrian conflict, her house was destroyed and the roof of her swimming pool centre ripped apart by bombs. As the situation deteriorated, Ms Mardini and her elder sister decided to flee Syria. In August last year they embarked on a journey from Damascus to Beirut to Istanbul.

It was when they boarded a small dinghy from Turkey and Greece that they encountered trouble. Their boat’s engine broke down in the Aegean Sea. It was dark and the turning tide made the sea choppy and unpredictable. Most of the passengers could not swim.

Ms Mardini and her sister, along with two other passengers, slipped into the open sea and pushed their boat by kicking the water behind them. They did this for more than three-and-a-half hours until they reached the shores of Greece.

Ms Mardini now resides in Germany and her remaining family members have been granted temporary asylum to join her.

Less than a year after her harrowing journey, Ms Mardini will be swimming for the millions of displaced people throughout the world.

At a press conference over the weekend, Ms Mardini said she wants to show that refugees can compete like any other athlete.

“We are now representing the biggest flag, which is all the countries,” she said.

“I hope you’re going to learn from our story – that you have to move on, because life will never stop for your problems.

“You have to remember the good memories. A lot of people have hope in us. Those fans are motivating.”

The Refugee Olympic Team is an opportunity to tell a story of global displacement at a time when the number of refugees is at an all-time high. The human impact of war and violence is evident in the story of 24-year-old Popole Misenga.

He will be competing in judo, but is also fighting for his family’s future. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he now lives in Brazil and has not seen his family for 18 years.

“I have two brothers that I haven’t seen for a long time. I cannot even remember what they look like,” an emotional Mr Misenga told reporters at the press conference.

”If you can see me on television now, you can see that your brother is here in Brazil and alive and well. I’m fighting to be able to one day pay for your tickets to come to Brazil.”

The World Council of Churches is encouraging churches to show their support for the Refugee Olympic Team. One way congregation members can show solidarity is to a post of photos of themselves holding a “I’m with #TeamRefugees” sign.

Download the WCC toolkit to see how you can take part in the social media campaign.


Image: Andy Miah via Flickr

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