“I hope the Olympics help me find my family” A member of the Refugee Olympic Team on why the Games is about much more than sport

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Yolande Mabika’s journey to Rio 2016 took her from war-torn central Africa to asylum in Brazil. She tells Stylist why we should all get behind the Refugee Olympic Team

Words: Corinne Redfern and Donna Bowater
Photography: Kim Badawi

They don’t have a flag, or a training ground, or even an anthem. They don’t speak the same language and most haven’t even met each other yet. But when the Olympic Opening Ceremony kicks off on Friday 5 August in Rio, 10 competitors will join together in a new single team for the so-called ‘Parade of Nations’ – despite the fact they’ve had to leave their own countries behind, and may never be able to go back.

As part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, six men and four women from South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are set to compete this summer under a banner adorned with the five Olympic rings. It’s a bid to shine a spotlight on the millions of men, women and children around the world who have been forced to flee their countries to escape the dangers of war. All the competitors are trained and dedicated sports women and men whose hopes for sporting success as well as for security, happiness and a permanent home have been dashed by conflicts and disasters beyond their control.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world more aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” explains Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which chose the team members. “[During the competition] we will offer these refugees 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. 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 they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

In October 2015, the International Olympic Committee asked countries participating in the Olympics to identify any displaced athletes who might be able to perform at an international standard. A £1.5million fund was created to finance the athletes’ training, and a shortlist of 43 nominated athletes was whittled down to 10 based on their sporting ability and verification of their refugee status. The athletes will be provided with team uniforms and receive support from the IOC after the conclusion of Rio 2016.

Stylist caught up with one competitor, judoka Yolande Mabika to find out exactly what she’s been through to become part of the team that everyone will be cheering on.

“I want to win on behalf of every refugee”

After being separated from her family in her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, professional Judoka Yolande Mabika, 28, claimed asylum in Brazil in 2013. Here she shares what competing in Rio 2016 means to her

“I remember the last time I saw my mum. I was nearly 10 years old, and she was standing in the kitchen making food. We lived in Bukavu, a city by the sea in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the civil war. I’d just come home from school and I went in to give her a hug. She told me to go and change out of my school uniform before dinner, so I found some clothes in my bedroom, then I headed outside. My dad was at work and my two brothers and two sisters were still at school.

Mum told me not to go too far away – to stay close to the house. I didn’t pay much attention, but as my friends and I played in the street, I suddenly heard explosions. Boom, boom, boom… The ground was shaking, and everyone around me started running and yelling. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t understand what was happening. I tried to go back towards the house, but someone picked me up to save me. ‘Maman,’ I screamed. ‘Maman, Maman’, but then the noises started again and this time, they were louder than before. All around me, I could see people falling down. The person carrying me started running.

After that, I didn’t see my mum again. In fact, I never saw anyone from my family ever again with no knowledge of what has happened to them. Sometimes I struggle to believe I’ve been alone for nearly 19 years. But I guess life goes on. After the attack on our village in 1997, I was taken to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC to live in a UNICEF camp with hundreds of others who had been separated from their families or escaped their homes during the war. As I started to try and make a new life for myself, I was taken to judo training (a sport the Congolese government advocated to restore structure to children’s lives) but it was very competitive. If we lost a competition, our coaches would punish us and put us in a room without food for 10 days – just giving us small pieces of bread to keep us going.

It was very difficult, but it made me strong. Things are hard sometimes wherever you are, but in the DRC, it’s war all day, every day. There’s so much suffering. It was very difficult for me, I am used to suffering now, but I didn’t want to leave the country because even though I couldn’t find them, it’s where my family were.

As I grew stronger at judo I began competing across Africa and in August 2013, I came to Brazil for the Judo World Cup. Another DRC competitor called Popole Misenga and I were staying in a hotel in downtown Rio when our coach abandoned us. He told us he was going out to get something but then he never came back. Popole and I were left in the hotel with nothing. We didn’t have any money or any ID – everything was in the coach’s bag. The hotel wouldn’t even let us eat because we couldn’t prove we were staying there.

After three days, the water in the mini bar ran out, and I felt desperate. I told Popole I’d find somebody on the street to help us, but nobody could understand me as they spoke Portuguese rather than French. I looked for black people, and started asking them if they were African too. Eventually a man took me to a hair salon where there were women from Angola who could speak French. I slept on the floor of that salon for two weeks, then one of the customers said I could stay with her. I got a message to Popole and he left the hotel too. Together we claimed asylum in Brazil, where I still live today.

When I first arrived in Brazil, I didn’t know the Olympics were happening. It wasn’t until former Brazilian judo champion Flávio Canto heard about Popole and I through a charity that was helping us, that I realised we might have a chance to train again. He’d set up an NGO called Instituto Reação, which provides free lessons in martial arts to teenagers and adults, and eventually put us forward for the Refugee Olympic Team. We didn’t even have judo robes but now we’re getting to compete against some of the best athletes in the world. I can’t believe it. It makes me so happy. Not many people get opportunities like this.

Now, I live in a small apartment in Bonsucesso in the north of Rio; I train three times a week and I’m studying Portuguese. It’s hard to pay for electricity, rent and water but it’s worth it.

Competing at the Olympics doesn’t scare me – I know that God will protect me. I want to win on behalf of every refugee out there – everyone who’s had to flee suffering in order to survive. And I want to win for my mum, too. Every day, I send messages on Facebook to people back home to see if they know where my family is. Everyday I’m thinking about them, if they’re dead or alive. I don’t know anything. I just tell myself that if I work hard and earn enough money, one day I can find them. I want them to see that their daughter is fighting in the Olympics. All the other athletes will have their family watching them, but where is mine?”

The Refugee Olympic Team: the world's most inspirational team

They’ve survived war and fled to safety – here are the men and women of the Refugee Olympic Team who show what it takes to be a true Olympic hero

Popole Misenga, 24, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Judo Born in Bukavu, Misenga grew up without a mother or a father. After years of tough training conditions, he sought asylum in Brazil. He now lives in a favela in Rio with his Brazilian wife, and one-year-old son Elias.

Yusra Mardini, 18, Syria

100m Freestyle Swimming Last August Mardini fled Damascus with her sister and headed to Europe for safety. After their dinghy to Greece started to sink, the sisters swam for three hours to push the 20 others on board to safety. She now lives in Berlin and has been training since October.

Yonas Kinde, 36, Ethiopia

Marathon Living under protection in Luxembourg since October 2013, Kinde is unable to talk about why he had to leave Ethiopia. Since arriving in Europe, he’s run many marathons, completing the Frankfurt marathon in two hours and 17 minutes.

James Nyang Chiengjiek, 28, South Sudan

400m Athletics When Nyang Chiengjiek was 12, his father was killed in the war in South Sudan. At risk of being captured by the army, he ran away to Kenya. There he joined Tegla Loroupe Foundation (TLF), a peace and development organisation.

Yiech Pur Biel, 21, South Sudan

800m Athletics Pur Biel was forced to flee to Kenya in 2005, leaving his parents behind in order to survive. Last year, after hearing about athletics trials in the camp where he lived, he was selected to join TLF before going on to be selected for Rio 2016.

Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, South Sudan

800m Athletics The war in South Sudan forced Lokonyen to flee to Kenya aged nine with her family. Last year, she participated in the 10km trial run organised by the TLF and she’s been training with them for a year.

Anjelina Nada Lohalith, 21, South Sudan

1,500m Athletics After fleeing the war when she was just seven, Nada Lohalith grew up in a camp in Kenya. Like many other members of the Refugee Olympic Team she has been helped by the TLF.

Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 24, South Sudan

1,500m Athletics After a childhood spent tending cattle, Amotun Lokoro fled to Kenya when he was 14 to join his mother. Last year, he competed for the first time, when the TLF organised athletics trials for young adults at the Kakuma refugee camp.

Rami Anis, 25, Syria

100m Butterfly Swimming Formerly an international swimmer in Syria, when the war started in 2011 Anis and his family fled to Istanbul. Last October, Anis moved to Belgium, where he had relatives. Six months later, he resumed his swimming training in Ghent.

Photography: © UNHCR/Kim Badawi, © UNHCR/Gordon Welters, © UNHCR/ Benjamin Loyseau