29 refugee athletes at Tokyo highlighting voice of displaced millions

The Refugee Olympic Team has returned with valour and zeal to compete in the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics this year.

The Refugee Olympic Team has returned with valour and zeal to compete in the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics this year. This marks their second time in the Olympics, after their debut being in the Summer Rio De Janeiro Olympics Games back in 2016. The Refugee team has almost tripled in size, jumping from having just 10 members in 2016 to 29 members participating in the ongoing Games in Japan. 

How did a Refugee Olympics team come into being?

One is a swimmer escaping civil war who helped steer a boatful of people to safety when it foundered by jumping into the water. And the other is a Martial Artist, who fled from armed gangs back home and set out to reach a whole other continent by foot.

Conflict or disaster had been the reason for displacement of about 65 million people from their homes, in 2015. The same year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the guardian of the Olympic Games, established a Refugee Emergency Fund that was donated to help aid international aid agencies integrate refugees in sport, and the IOC also announced that it would be inviting refugee athletes to compete in the Olympic Games in Brazil.

Following the success of the Refugee team in the 2016 Games, the IOC decided in 2018 that there would be an IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020. Olympic Solidarity, which is the body that organises assistance for all National Olympic Committees (NOCs), was assigned to establish the conditions of participation and define the selection process for the team, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, NOCs and International Federations (IFs).

This led to the formation of the Olympic Scholarships for Refugee Athletes programme, which awarded grants to 56 eligible athletes, providing them with the financial support that enabled them to train for the Games. These grants were extended for one more year as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games were postponed due to the pandemic. According to the Olympics website, the investment by the Olympic Solidarity for the refugee holders totalled to 2 million USD since Rio 2016.

All the players in the Refugee Olympic Teams hold refugee status confirmed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

Who all are competing on the Refugee Olympic team this year? 

The 29 athletes come from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cameroon. These are countries that are ravaged by conflict and civil war, deeming it unsafe for the refugees to return to. Six of these athletes- swimmer Yusra Mardini, judoka Popole Misenga and runners Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (1,500m), James Nyang Chiengjiek (800m), Paulo Amotun Lokoro (1,500m) and Rose Nathike Likonyen (800m)- had competed in the Rio 2016 Games.

Cyrille Tchatchet II – weightlifting

Weightlifter Cyrille Tchatchet II arrived in the UK to compete in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. After realizing that it is unsafe to return, he slipped out of his team’s accomodations and slept on the streets, becoming isolated and depressed.

He eventually reached out by calling a suicide helpline and was picked up by the police. He applied for asylum while in custody, was offered a home, and received treatment for his depression, after which he started weightlifting again. Cyrille went back to school and is now a mental health nurse who has been supporting patients through the pandemic. 

Tchatchet will be competing on the 31st of July at the Olympics.

Yusra Mardini- Swimmer

This will be the second time the 23 year old Syrian swimmer is competing at the Olympics, after winning her heat in the 100m butterfly in the Rio Games.

Yusra escaped from the civil war in Syria. She had to swim for her life when trying to reach the greek coast, trying to keep herself and those on the boat afloat for three hours while pushing their foundering boat onto the shore. She was named one of People magazine’s 25 women changing the world and one of Time Magazine’s 30 most influential teens of 2016. Yusra now lives in Germany and has told her stirring story in her bestselling book called “Butterfly”. 

Her brief stint at the preliminary heats in the Tokyo Olympics of the 100-meter butterfly  (1mins 06.78 secs), may however be her last appearance as an athlete at the Olympics.  Nonetheless, Mardini is steadfast in her dream and has her sights already set on a new target: “I want to get a German passport, study and then open a swimming school.” 

The message Mardini, the refugee team flag bearer, sent to the world, however, matters more than her result. Her personal mission is to help others better understand the plight of refugees; that ultimately all they are seeking is safety and opportunity.

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith- Athletics

The South Sudanese track runner had also competed at the Rio Games 1,500m event at Rio 2016 Games, representing the Refugee Olympic team in its debut Olympics.

She escaped the violent conflict in South Sudan with her Aunt when she was just 8 years old. Angelina then settled in one of the largest refugee settlements in the world, the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The 26-year-old’s training took a hit during the pandemic when Kenya imposed strict restrictions, she had to move to the refugee camp where it was difficult to train.

The athlete however is resilient: “The pandemic isn’t something that (just) happened to me only…I never lose hope because I know there (is) something ahead of me.” 

Angelina’s heats will be held on August 2nd.

Abdullah Sediqi– Taekwondo

Abdullah Sediqi escaped armed gangs in Afghanistan and set out for Europe on foot, enduring endless 12-hour day walks, to arrive in Belgium where he trained in a refugee camp. The pandemic has hit him hard too as he lost his mother to Coronavirus before he could return to see her again. In his very first fight he faced leading Olympic champion Zhao Shuai.

Unfazed, Sediqi put up a fierce resistance against the Chinese gold medallist from Rio but was eventually eliminated on a 22-20 score. Zhao had to use all his experience as his opponent fought right to the end, the most spectacular moment of the bout coming in the final seconds when Sediqi pulled off an incredible spinning kick to the body for four points. 

The 24 year old has time to learn from his first Olympic experience and return stronger for Paris 2024.

Kimia Alizadeh– Taekwondo

Kimia Alizadeh, Taekwondo from Iran, based in Germany, won her way to the semi-finals where she was defeated by Tatiana Kudashova from ROC (Russia) by a score of 10-3. She qualified with a score of (18-9) when competing against Nahid Kiyani of Iran. In the quarterfinals, She also won against Zhou Lijun of China by a point. (9-8) Alizadeh lost the bronze medal contest against Hatis Ilgun of Turkey by 2 points. (8-6)

In the Women’s 57kg category, Alizadeh won against Jade Jones from Great Britain by a score of 16-12.

Hamoon Derafshipour- Karate

The tough 28-year-old Canadian-based Iranian Karateka, who raised funds for his training on gofundme, will be seen competing on August 5th.

Ahmad Alikaj – Judo

The 30 year old from Syria, based in Germany will be seen competing on July 26th for 73kg Judo.

Ahmad Badreddin Wais – Cycling

Wais from Syria, based in Switzerland. He rode in the time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Alaa Maso-  Swimming

Alaa Maso from Syria, based in Germany, recently seen hugging his brother who’s also competing in the Olympic triathlon will be competing on 30th July for the 50m freestyle swimming.

Aram Mahmoud– Badminton from Syria, based in the Netherlands will be competing against Loh Kean Yoh from Singapore on 26th July.

Dina Pouryounes LangeroudiTaekwondo, from Iran, based in the Netherlands was defeated by Wu Jingyu from China (24-3)

Dorian Keletela– Athletics, from Congo, based in Portugal will be competing on 31st July.

Eldric Sella Rodriguez – Boxing, from Venezuela, based in Trinidad and Tobago will be competing on the 26th of July.

Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed – Athletics from Sudan,  based in Israel, will be competing on August 3rd.

James Nyang Chiengjiek – Athletics from South Sudan, based in Kenya will be competing on 31st July.

Javad Mahjoub– Judo from Iran, based in Canada will be competing on 30th July against Germany.

Luna Solomon– Shooting from Eritrea, based in Switzerland will compete for women’s 10m shooting, she qualified for the next round.

Masomah Ali Zada – Cycling from Afghanistan, based in France will be competing in the Time Trial.Muna Dahouk fled from Syria in 2018 to join her mum in the Netherlands.

Muna Dahouk– Judo from Syria, based in the Netherlands will be competing on July 27th against Cuba.

Nigara Shaheen– Judo from Afghanistan,  based in Russia will be competing on 28th July against Maria Portela of Brazil. Shaheen was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan when she was just six months old.

Paulo Amotun Lokoro– Athletics, from South Sudan,  based in Kenya. Lokoro was also selected as one of the ten members of the Refugee Olympic Team for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Popole Misenga– Judo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, based in Brazil will be competing on 28th July against Krisztian Toth of Hungary.

Rose Nathike Likonyen – Athletics,  from South Sudan, based in Kenya. Rose and her family left South Sudan because of the war and arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in 2002.

Saeid Fazloula – Canoe, from Iran, based in Germany. He was forced to flee Iran in 2015, risking it all to make his way through the Balkan route to Germany.

Sanda Aldass– Judo,  from Syria, based in the Netherlands will be competing against Marica Perisic from Serbia on 26th July. Aldass decided to escape Damascus and Syria’s civil war in 2015, leaving her husband Fadi Darwish, who is also her coach, behind with their young son.

Tachlowini Gabriyesos – Athletics, from Eritrea, based in Israel. Tachlowini fled insecurity in Eritrea when he was just 12 years old with his 13-year-old friend. From there, he spent time in Ethiopia and Sudan, before eventually making the treacherous journey across the Sinai to Israel.

Wael Shueb – Karate, from Syria, based in Germany. The 33-year-old used to work in a textile factory and as a part-time martial arts coach in his native Damascus. But in 2015, with war looming, he felt he had no other choice than to flee the city for his own safety.

Wessam Salamana – Boxing,  from Syria, based in Germany, was defeated by Wanderson de Oliveiria from Brazil, (5-0) in the Men’s lightweight. Wessam lived in the countryside of Damascus with his wife and daughter. He had to make the difficult decision to flee his country for the safety of his family and to be able to continue his sporting career.

Why is the Refugee Olympic Team so important?

With about 82.5 million displaced people around the world, the refugee olympic team is a source and symbol of hope, as James MacLeod, the director of the Olympic Solidarity pointed out.

The team sends a powerful reminder to the world that refugees are also humans with talents and aspirations. One should look beyond the histories containing bloodshed, poverty and a level of endurance that sets these athletes apart from others, and focus on what it is that makes them refugees in the first place. No human should be stripped of their right to dream, and this is what the Refugee Olympic Team stands for. 

“This team is representing displaced people across the world. The ultimate wish is to not have this team. If the crisis was resolved we would not have to have this team.”, MacLeod said.