For The First Time, Refugees Will See Themselves Represented At The Olympics

Leonard Tshitenge CREDIT: Leonard Tshitenge
Leonard Tshitenge CREDIT: Leonard Tshitenge

This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

The Olympics is a time for people around the world to celebrate their culture, identity, and pride in their home country. But for the 19.5 million refugees displaced by conflict and persecution, there are no banners of patriotism to wave. Until this year.

Last week, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced the final cut for the first Refugee Olympic Team to play under the Olympic flag. The team wil include two refugees from Syria, five from South Sudan, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one from Ethiopia.

The IOC’s initiative to set up a team of refugees sends a strong message of hope for other refugees who come from each of these countries. The inclusion of refugees — who receive a form of humanitarian relief that allows them to legally stay in host countries — in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games coincides with the world’s largest influx of forcibly displaced people continue to flee conflict and persecution since World War II.

Here’s what some of these country’s other refugees have to say about the historic team:

Democratic Republic of Congo

Leonard Tshitenge, whose family left the Congo in 1996 to escape an economic crisis and political turmoil stemming from the First Congo War, was “grateful” when the IOC announced its refugee team. It’s a way to put a face on the global refugee issue, he said.


“In this circumstances, you celebrate the strength to rebel, you celebrate courage,” Tshitenge told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “You celebrate the fact that you’re carrying the suffering of those left behind. You’re making them proud in terms of your family, in terms of those who didn’t make it, in terms of those who died in the war. You find yourself alive under circumstances that are out of your control.”

Tshitenge said having a DRC refugee at the Olympics could make people aware that “the Congo matters to all of us” because of the global impact that its minerals have had on developed countries. The country sits on raw mineral ores worth $24 trillion that are used to build everyday products like smartphones, laptops, and lightbulbs. But that wealth has not trickled down to the vast majority of Congolese residents who live in extreme poverty.

As of January 2014, more than half a million refugees have fled armed conflict in the DRC, making the country’s refugee population the sixth largest in the world, according to the European Resettlement Network. About three-fourths of these refugees have fled to neighboring countries in the Great Lakes Region and Souther Africa, including the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, and Malawi.

Today, Tshitenge is an American-Congolese poet who uses his writing to advocate for underprivileged Continental Africans and for those who have been impacted by the Congo’s two major wars over the past two decades.


Daniel Gai Riak hopes the IOC’s choice of a refugee team may help the rest of the world see Ethiopia as more than a country that has been “torn down by war over 30 years” — and instead see its residents for the “capable, intelligent” people they are.


“It is a big happiness in terms of the individuals and in terms of the country,” Gai said. “There are some people out there who never had the opportunity, but once they see it, they might be motivated to do something bigger or something similar to what [the Olympic players] are doing now.”

Gai left South Sudan at the age of six and made the 1,000-mile journey to Ethiopia as one of the 20,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” displaced by the Second Sudanese Civil War. He was displaced by war twice more, leaving Ethiopia for Kenya and eventually for the United States. In 2001, Gai was among the 3,800 Lost Boys who were allowed to resettle in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen five years later, a “joyful” experience that has “no comparison,” he said.

It is a big happiness.

Now a 35-year-old father of three, Gai works as a case manager for the North Carolina African Services Coalition, a refugee resettlement agency in Greensboro. “The future is bright as I’m speaking,” he said.

In spite of significant jumps in educational attainment and a rapid economic ascension, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest in the world with high unemployment among youths. As a result, many Ethiopian refugees are still making the treacherous trek out of the country. But Ethiopians who leave the country run the risk of persecution by terrorist groups like the Libyan arm of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which last year shot and killed Ethiopian Christians.  Though Ethiopian refugees are leaving the country, the country is also host to one of the largest populations of refugees, mostly from South Sudan. In August 2014, the country overtook Kenya as Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, with the government allocating land for 23 camps.

South Sudan

Nyamal Tutdeal, who was born in exile in Ethiopia by South Sudanese parents, had mixed emotions when she heard that South Sudanese refugees made the final cut. The Olympics will be a time to be hopeful not only for South Sudan, but also for many people on the African continent, she said. But Tutdeal also remarked that the Games don’t take away from the fact that there are still refugees fleeing from violence globally.


“For me personally, this Olympics will hurt a little bit more,” Tutdeal said in a phone interview. “South Sudan is a country that does not uphold what it should uphold for the people of South Sudan — there are still people who are refugees. We thought we would be the last generation of refugees. It’s bittersweet, but there’s a little bit of hope that the Olympics will give a platform for the [athletes] and the people [of South Sudan].”

Nyamal Tutdeal CREDIT: Joshua Redwine
Nyamal Tutdeal CREDIT: Joshua Redwine

Tutdeal’s family resettled in North Dakota in February 1996 and although she is a “proud” American citizen now, her former refugee status has shaped the way she views her identity. When people ask her where she’s from, she responds by saying, “’that’s a really good question, do you want the full answer?’” before telling them that she considers herself “South Sudanese-Ethiopian-American.”

But Tutdeal also reflected that survivor’s guilt was partially the impetus that drove her to create her female empowerment organization NyaEden Foundation, which provides hygiene kits for female Sudanese refugees. Her aim is to help “change the narrative from being victims to victors.”

“The greatest African proverb is that ‘when two elephants fight, the grass gets hurt,’ and that’s what happened to the population in South Sudan. For [the government] to even pit people against each other across ethnic lines is just stupid, for lack of a better word,” she said.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but it is still undergoing a humanitarian crisis where five million people need aid and three million people are at risk of starvation, according to Mercy Corps.


Eyad H., who left the suburbs of Damascus for Lebanon in 2012 when it became clear that the civil war in Syria could leave him dead, was “proud” when he heard that the IOC had chosen two Syrians for the refugee team. He said it’s good to show the world that refugees can make a big impact on their host countries.

Eyad H. CREDIT: Aoss photography
Eyad H. CREDIT: Aoss photography

At the age of 26, Eyad now lives as a refugee in Germany because he did not have the right to legally work in Lebanon. He completed his degree in computer science and hopes to go on for either a master’s degree in computer science or German so that he could contribute to society. “I am so grateful for Germany that they give us this opportunity,” he said.

Adnan, a 26-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, was “positively surprised” and “very proud” when he heard that Syrian refugees made the final cut because he knows they understand his experiences.

“The Syrian athletes in the refugee team represent me, since they are refugees too, we wear the same shoes,” Adnan said through an interpreter provided by the United Nations Refugee agency. “Participating in the Olympic games is a dream of every athlete, to represent one’s country in such a historic event.”

The Syrian athletes in the refugee team represent me, since they are refugees too, we wear the same shoes.

Forced from Homs, Syria after his leg was injured during the war, Adnan left for Lebanon in 2014. He now studies mass communications at Al Jinan University in North Lebanon. For Adnan, the meaning of “home” has evolved from a physical place to a feeling.

“Home might seem a 4 letter word, yet is it much bigger than that and cannot be contained or defined,” he said. “Home is your memory, a sense of belonging, it is a family.”

Eyad and Adnan are among the 4.5 million Syrian refugees who have left the country, primarily going to places like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. About 363,000 Syrians filed for asylum in Europe in 2015, though numbers are expected to rise by the end of this year.