Two Congolese athletes granted official refugee status in Brazil with the help of Caritas Rio de Janeiro are to make history as part of the first refugee team to compete in an Olympic Games.
Yolande Mabika (pictured) and Popole Misenga, who fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013, will join eight other displaced athletes from Syria, South Sudan and Ethiopia in the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT).
Caritas Rio de Janeiro was asked if there were any athletes amongst the refugees they assisted in January last year. After a long wait, the Catholic church’s worldwide aid and development organisation was told that Mabika and Misenga had been selected as part of the Olympic refugee team.
We hope that the Olympics change the way people look upon refugees, who should not be seen as victims, but as ordinary people who have talents, pursue their dreams and sometimes do extraordinary things,” said Diogo Felix, Public Information Officer at Caritas Rio de Janeiro.
“The fact that these refugee athletes are competing in the Olympics after everything they have been through in their lives highlights how strong they are. This is just another victory in their lives,” he added.
The six male and four female athletes will carry the Olympic flag into the Maracana Stadium ahead of host nation Brazil at the opening ceremony on 5 August.
"These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem," said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on announcing that an official Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) would compete in this year’s games.
"This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis," Bach said.
"These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” he added.
Misenga and Mabika, who will compete in the 70kg and 90kg judo category respectively, took up judo in a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa, after fleeing violence in their home towns.
“We had to fight for everything,’ Mabika told Geographical Magazine. ‘For me, judo was a way of defending myself and surviving.’
The pair came across Caritas Rio de Janeiro after they escaped from a hotel in Brazil while competing at the World Judo Championships and fled to Cinco Bocas, a favela in northern Rio, home to a Congolese community.
They will be joined in the Olympic stadium by five athletes from South Sudan; an Ethiopian marathon runner and two Syrian swimmers.
Yusra Mardini, who will swim in the ladies 100m freestyle, fled escalating violence in Syria last year, crossing the Aegean sea in a small boat along with 20 other migrants.
“In the water there is no difference if you are a refugee, a Syrian, or a German,” Mardini, told reporters.
Mardini, who has trained for the games in Germany, will carry the Olympic flag into the stadium at the opening ceremony.
Rami Anis, who will represent the Refugee Olympic Team in the 100-metre butterfly, fled Aleppo to Ghent, Belgium, via Istanbul and the Greek island of Samos.
The United Nations' refugee agency said it was very inspired by the creation of the historic team. It said the global number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced peoples had continually risen since the 59.5 million recorded at the end of 2014.
Along with establishing the Refugee Olympic Team, The International Olympic Committee has allocated $2 million for Olympic Solidarity, a fund which assists aspiring athletes and provides sporting equipment to refugee camps.
This funding has enabled the creation of sports programmes in refugee camps in Austria and 30 refugee holding centres across Belgium have been supplied with sports equipment.