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Team HOPE: The Refugee Olympic Team

The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) doesn’t have any medals yet, but they are making major history in the Rio 2016 Olympics. The Refugee Olympic Team’s athletes don’t have a country to represent. Instead, they’re representing hope—a worldwide spirit.

It is the first team of its kind. Ever.

The Refugee Olympic Team is made up of ten athletes–six men and four women—ranging from 18 to 36 years of age. The team is competing in three sports: swimming, athletics and judo.

The Refugee Olympic Team didn’t even have a flag to march with in the Opening Ceremony’s Parade of Nations. They marched under the Olympic flag, accompanied by a standing ovation. But after the ceremony, a non-profit organization called The Refugee Nation commissioned a flag to be designed and made as well as a national anthem —written by composer Moutaz Arian, a Syrian refugee living in Istanbul—for the ROT. The ROT flag is orange and features a black strip across it—reminiscent of the lifejackets many refugees have become familiar with on their escape to safety.

Athletes First, Refugees Second

Yusra Mardini is the youngest athlete on the Refugee Olympic Team. She’s a swimmer, but her training looks a lot different than Michael Phelps‘. When their house was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War, Yusra and her sister decided to flee Syria in August 2015.

After making it to Lebanon and then Turkey, they piled into a small boat to Greece with 16 other people—about 11 more than the boat was meant to carry. But when the motor gave out in the middle of the Aegean Sea, Yusra, her sister and two others got out and swam the boat to the shore of Lesbos. Four people pulled 14 in a dinghy for three hours—talk about qualifying!

Yusra, her sister and her parents now live in Germany. She trained in Berlin, and in a video from the International Olympic Committee, Yusra recognized the unifying power of sports and the Olympics:

“You are an athlete; you will not think [about] if you are Syrian or from London or from Germany…You have your lane, our swimming cap, your swimming lessons, that’s it.”

The Refugee Olympic Team includes five refugees from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from The Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia. But, just like any Olympian, the Refugee Olympic Team athletes want to be known for their hard work, not as refugees, but as athletes. And though their stories look much different than most of the world’s olympians’—on some levels, probably harder and scarier than many—as one ROT athlete says, being a refugee shouldn’t stop anyone from doing anything.

“You can’t let people think that just because they are refugees they have to stop doing what they do because they are refugees,” said Congolese athlete Popole Misenga (translated by the International Olympic Committee).

The Story of Hope 

The Olympics are, by nature, a unifying tradition, bringing together people from all around the globe. The Games garner worldwide attention, joining athletes, coaches, families and spectators in a unique and powerful way. But the Refugee Olympic Team is bringing the world together in a whole new sense. Not only is the team itself a unification of different countries and many stories, the ROT brings a new story to the world’s Olympic stage, a necessary story, a life-giving story, a story of hope.

And hope is a story we’re all longing to hear.

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