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Team Refugee

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4: 7

The Summer Olympics are set to begin soon, and while there have already been plenty of concerns surrounding the games, I will be watching part of the games.

As a child I was amazed by the athletic prowess and pageantry of the Olympics. To watch people who had worked so hard for so long cross the finish line, stick the landing or ace that last serve to win Olympic gold was awe-inspiring. And to watch the opening ceremony, with all its glitz and glamour as each team proudly carried their national flag while smiling and waving to the crowds…well that was just breathtaking.

To the athletes who have Olympic dreams but will never be chosen by their countries to participate

In my teen years my focus started shifting during the Olympics. I began paying more attention to the stories of struggle and heartbreak and perseverance. To the athletes who didn’t make it to the medal podium but were inspiring just for making it to the Olympics. I started noticing the discrepancies between the countries who had hundreds of Olympic athletes, and those who had one. To the countries who were at war with one another but still competing in the same Olympics. 

As an adult my understanding has broadened even further. To the countries chosen to host the Olympics, and those who aren’t. To the countries that never even enter the bidding process as a host country. To the countries that don’t have any athletes who qualify to compete. To athletes who represent their country of birth at one Olympics but have since left their homes and represent another country in subsequent Olympics. To the athletes who have Olympic dreams but will never be chosen by their countries to participate because the nation where their citizenship resides doesn’t want them. To stateless athletes. To refugee athletes. To the athletes who have died due to wars, genocides, and other violent conflicts before their Olympic dreams were fulfilled. 

I saw her and the Somalian delegation walking in the opening ceremonies

I remember watching the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, and hearing a story about Samia Yusuf Omar. Samia was a sprinter, and one of two athletes representing Somalia in the Olympics. Samia grew up in Mogadishu during the ongoing civil war and was threatened repeatedly by Al-Shabaab and other local militants, who believed women should not be athletes. Most people in Somalia, including  her own family, were unable to watch her compete in the 2008 Olympics, but there she was, running a race for the rest of the world to see. I saw her and the Somalian delegation walking in the opening ceremonies, dressed in beautiful white and blue clothing and carrying the Somalian flag. I remember seeing her in the baggy white and blue t-shirt, finishing the race long after her competitors had crossed the finish line in their dynamic uniforms, but with the crowd cheering her on for her effort. For me, the story of Samia was one of the “feel good” stories of the Summer Olympics.

But after the Olympics, I forgot about her. I forgot about her dreams, her aspirations, her safety and security. I forgot about her until another part of her story became a tragic one.

It became even harder for her to chase her dreams of participating in another Olympics.

My first visit to the island of Lampedusa (off the coast of Sicily) was in October 2015. I was serving as a missionary, working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and was invited by my mission partners to take part in a ceremony commemorating the October 3, 2013 boat accident off the coast of Lampedusa that claimed the lives of 368 people from various countries in Africa and the Middle East who were seeking refuge in Europe. One of the hosts of the event had created artwork depicting stories of people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Italy over the past several years, and during my visit he shared the story of Samia Yusuf Omar. 

Samia died in 2012 while crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. She died because, by the time she returned to Somalia after the 2008 Summer Olympics, life became even more difficult for her and her family. It became even harder for her to chase her dreams of participating in another Olympics. So, like millions of people in similar circumstances, she embarked on a perilous journey to seek refuge. And like so many others, it was a fatal journey. 

In 2016, for the first time ever, the Refugee Olympic Team participated in the Olympics. Ten athletes from six countries of origins were given an opportunity that elluded Samia Yusuf Omar. IOC President Thomas Bach, upon announcing the formation of the Refugee Olympic Team, is quoted as saying:

 “These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. 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. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. 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.”

The Olympic Refugee Team for 2020 includes 29 athletes from 11 countries of origin, with six athletes who previously participated for the Team in 2016, and they will be participating in 12 sports. If you are watching the opening ceremonies, the Olympic Refugee Team will be the second team in the parade of nations, behind Greece, and will again be carrying the Olympic flag. 

Yes, I will cheer on all athletes during the Olympics. I will be proud when one of my co-nationals overcomes an obstacle, perseveres through hardship, and even stands on the medal podium. But this year, more than anything, I am Team Refugee. I will intentionally learn more about the stories of the individuals who made the team. Their hopes and dreams. The reasons they became refugees. Where they live now. I will cheer them on, and marvel at their athletic abilities. 

And after the 2020 Olympic Games are over, I will continue to work to make the world a safer place for refugees. Will you join me? By doing so, may we ourselves be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 

Urge Congress to Support Just and Humane Immigration Policies!

Image: Wikipedia Commons 

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