This year, the 2016 Olympics in Brazil will feature its first ever Refugee Olympic Team. You need to watch, cheer, and talk about this team because it has important global ramifications.
The team will be composed of 10 athletes who have fled their war-torn home countries of Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Without a national citizenship, they’ll unite under the Olympic flag to compete in swimming, judo, and running.
Why Do We Need an Olympic Refugee Team?
The Olympics is about people representing their nations. Do we really need a refugee team? Isn’t it just a publicity stunt?
Sure, the news of a refugee team gives the Olympic Committee much needed positive press amidst the preparation disaster in Rio, including a corrupt government, violent crime, Zika, toxic water, and unfinished and inadequate housing for athletes.
The team has great athletes that will be competitive, but no one expects them to win any medals based on their qualifying times and scores. But that’s not the point.
Their presence represents and catalyzes a global shift in how we think about refugees.
A Refugee Team Restores Dignity
Refugees are viewed negatively.
You see this played out in the popularity of Trump’s rhetoric, the rise of fear and nationalism in Europe, and the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU.
Though refugees are fleeing the very same violence and conflict that we oppose, we unfairly equate them with that violence. We see them as perpetrators, not victims and survivors. We see them as a problem to be dealt with.
We treat them… less human.
Being a person without a nation is only one of the effects of being a refugee. But by providing them with a common banner to compete under, in an event usually reserved for citizens of nations, helps to raise dignity for those who are viewed and treated as less than human.
An Olympic Team Brings Awareness to the Refugee Crisis
We’re experiencing the largest migration of people in the world since World War II. The Syrian refugee crisis makes up a large portion of this number.
Yes, we all know about the Syrian refugee crisis. But we’ve all forgotten about it too.
There is still a war in Syria. There are still refugees fleeing the violence in small rafts across the ocean. There are still people stuck in refugee camps with nowhere to go.
This is still happening in other parts of the world, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Myanmar.
Having a team made up of refugees helps brings attention and focus to an ongoing crisis, especially when it’s fallen out of the spotlight of sensational news.
Watching a Refugee Team at the Olympics Starts Important Conversations
The conversation around refugees is a complex one, but it’s one that needs to take place.
In general, everyone is sympathetic towards refugees. But when it comes to helping them, the tone turns hostile.
There are legitimate concerns about border control, security, economic infrastructure, social services and cultural integration. But serious discussions on those topics are often overshadowed by fear and ignorance with broad assumptions like “the terrorists are coming to steal our jobs and kills us.”
The Stories of the Refugee Olympic Team Athletes
Each refugee has their own story of sacrifice, loss, and struggle. They’ve overcome so many odds just to survive, much less get here.
One of the athletes on the team is Yusra Mardini. She is 17-year from Syria who will be competing in the swim competitions. She crossed from Turkey to Greece by a small raft. As they neared Greece, the raft got holes and started sinking – many of those on board could not swim. So she got and pushed the boat the rest of the way to land.
She literally swam to save her life and the lives of others. Now she gets to swim for hope and dignity of millions.