Thousands of athletes hope that — with enough dedication and determination — they might just make it to the Olympics. Ten of those athletes who recently received this honor are particularly deserving. They are the members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team.
The 2016 Refugee Olympic Team offers an unprecedented and wholly unique opportunity to elite athletes who, due to their lack of identifying country, would be otherwise ineligible to participate in the Games. The team's members may share many differences in origin, nationality, and even language, but their combined presence at this year's Olympics is a welcome reminder to all people that home is truly where the heart is.
Though forced to flee their homelands for various reasons, these athletes all come to the 2016 Rio Olympics for the same one: to win.
Individually, they've beaten countless odds to get where they are today. Together, they're ready to beat the competition — and go further than they ever imagined.
These 10 talented and resilient athletes prove that, no matter how many obstacles a person must overcome, no dream is impossible.
1. Yusra Mardini
Born in Syria, 18-year-old Yusra Mardini fled Damascus with her sister last August as the country's civil war intensified. While crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Greece with 20 other refugees, their dinghy's motor died. The boat nearly capsized, but Mardini, her sister, and another person saved everyone's lives by jumping into the water and pushing the boat to shore. "Without swimming," she said at a news conference introducing the team on August 2, "I don't think I survive."
Though she could not have known it at the time, her harrowing experience was unexpected training for the Olympics. Mardini will represent Team Refugee Olympic Athletes — and, in spirit, her home country of Syria — in the Women's 100-meter butterfly and freestyle events on August 6 and 10, respectively.
"Everyone is trying to get a new life, to get a better life," Mardini added at the conference. "Everything that happened to the homelands of refugees, it could happen in your hometown ... I want everyone to think that refugees are normal humans who had homelands and who lost them."
2. Popole Misenga
Popole Misenga is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. After his mother died when he was only 6 years old, he lost his father and was separated from his brother during the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war three years later. After surviving eight days in a forest, Misenga was rescued and brought to a home for displaced children. There, he discovered judo.
"When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn't have one," Misenga, 28, said, according to UNHRC. "Judo helped me by giving me calmness, discipline, direction — everything. It is a part of my life."
Though he earned a spot on the DRC's national judo team, he emigrated to Brazil in 2013, seeking political asylum. Now, he'll compete in the men's 90-kilogram judo event on August 10.
3. James Nyang Chiengjiek
When James Nyang Chiengjiek was barely a teenager, he fled what was then southern Sudan to avoid being forced into service as a child soldier for rebel forces. Once he safely crossed the border into neighboring Kenya, he went to a school known for its runners. A group of older boys training for long-distance events took him under their wing.
Though Chiengjiek lacked a pair of proper running shoes, he didn't lack strength or determination. Often, the boys shared footwear with each other. No matter what he did or didn't wear, however, Chiengjiek always won. "That's when I realized I could make it as a runner," he told the UNHCR, "and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it." He will run in the men's 400-meter dash on August 12.
4. Rami Anis
As bombings and kidnappings related to the Syrian civil war increased in Rami Anis' hometown of Aleppo, he was forced to leave in 2011. His family sent him to Istanbul, where he would live with his older brother. He didn't realize until much later that he wouldn't return.
In Turkey, Anis trained at the prestigious Galatasaray Sports Club for swimming. Lacking Turkish citizenship, however, he was unable to pursue his aquatic passion competitively. To achieve this dream, Anis traveled again, this time aboard an inflatable dinghy to the Greek island of Samos. Eventually, he made his way to Belgium and was granted asylum there last December.
Despite having moved around so much, Anis never feels out of place doing what he loves. "The swimming pool is my home," he told the 2016 Rio Olympics organization. He will compete in the men's 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly events on August 9 and 11, respectively.
5. Yolande Mabika
At an early age, Yolande Mabika was separated from her parents due to fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the UNHCR, she remembers little of her childhood besides running alone before being picked up by a helicopter that took her to Kinshasa, the capital. Like Misenga, she too discovered judo in a displaced children's home.
After years of training, Mabika became a professional athlete and competed in prestigious tournaments. "Judo never gave me money," she told the UNHCR, "but it gave me a strong heart." She would need one in 2013, when her coach took away her passport and restricted her access to food at the World Judo Championship in Rio, as he'd done at every other competition abroad. To escape her abuser, Yolande found the strength to flee her hotel. She wandered the streets searching for help and eventually became a refugee in Brazil.
"This is an opportunity that can change my life," Mabika told the organization. "I hope my story will be an example for everybody, and perhaps my family will see me and we will reunite." She will compete in the women's 70-kilogram event on August 10.
6. Paulo Amotun Lokoro
Up until a few years ago, Paulo Amotun Lokoro spent his days herding his family's cattle on the plains of South Sudan. Though he led a relatively peaceful life, his homeland had been at war for almost all of it. As a result, he fled to Kenya and lived in a refugee camp.
While there, he excelled in sports and eventually earned a spot on the refugee squad. Led by Tegla Loroupe, the world record-holding Kenyan runner, the team currently trains near Nairobi.
Though Lokoro ultimately aspires to be a "world champion," his hard work and raw talent have already earned him great renown. "I know I am racing on behalf of refugees. I was one of those refugees there in the camp, and now I have reached somewhere special," he told the UNHCR. "If I perform well, I will use that to help support my family, and my people." He will compete in the men's 1,500-meter dash on August 16.
7. Rose Nathike Lokonyen
Rose Nathike Lokonyen discovered her talent for running by accident. After she fled to Kenya from South Sudan at age 10, a teacher at her refugee camp encouraged Lokonyen to compete in a 10-kilometer race. "It was the first time for me to run, and I came number two," she told the UNHCR. "I was very surprised!"
Since then, Lokonyen began training at a camp near Nairobi in preparation for the Olympics. She hopes that if she does well at the games, she can eventually return to her homeland and conduct a race to "promote peace" and "bring people together." She is running in the women's 800-meter dash on August 17.
8. Yonas Kinde
Yonas Kinde was forced to flee Ethiopia due to "political problems." Even after five years of living in Luxembourg, three of which have been under special protection, he still finds it difficult to discuss his origins. Instead, he focuses on the future, putting all his energy into preparing for the Olympics. "I normally train every day, but when I heard this news [about the refugee team] I trained two times per day, every day, targeting for these Olympic Games," he told the Rio Olympics organization.
Between taking French classes and driving a taxi, Kinde is always on the move. His marathon times reflect it. Last October, he ran a marathon in Germany in just 2 hours and 17 minutes. Kinde has won several other running titles in Luxembourg and France, as well.
With his Olympic participation, Kinde hopes to send a "big message" to young, refugee athletes that they can do everything regular athletes with more resources can. "I've won many races, but I didn't have a nationality to participate in the Olympic Games or the European championships," Kinde added. "It's very good news for refugee athletes that Olympic Solidarity have given us this chance to participate here." He will compete in the men's marathon on August 21.
9. Yiech Pur Biel
When Yiech Pur Biel was 11 years old, he left Sudan in 2005 to escape its civil war. He spent the next 10 years living in Kakuma refugee camp, but only started running competitively just over a year ago.
His journey to the Olympics began when he learned that the Tegla Loroupe Foundation, named after the Kenyan Olympian, was holding athletics trials at his refugee camp. Though Biel had no experience running competitively, he not only entered but was selected to join the foundation.
"In the refugee camp, we have no facilities — even shoes we don't have," Biel told the Rio Olympics organization. "There is no gym. Even the weather does not favor training, because from morning until evening it is sunny and hot." Despite these challenges, the 21-year-old has pushed himself every day to become better. Now, he trains under Tegla Loroupe herself in Nairobi, with four other South Sudanese on the Olympic refugee team. On August 12, he will compete in the men's 800-meter dash.
10. Anjelina Nada Lohalith
Since fleeing South Sudan at age 6, Anjelina Nada Lohalith hasn't seen or even spoken to her parents. "Since I came from there to here, I have never communicated with them," she told the Rio Olympics organization. Now 21, she hopes her participation in the Games will help them reunite.
After coming to northern Kenya in 2002, she has spent most of her life living in the Kakuma refugee camp. She began running while still in elementary school and soon discovered a natural talent for the sport. Like Biel, Lohalith was selected to train under Tegla Loroupe when her foundation came to their refuge camp.
Though running has been a lifelong passion of Lohalith's, her love for her family is what really keeps her going. She hopes that succeeding at the Olympics might earn her enough money to improve their lives. "My dream is just to help my parents and help my father build a better house," she said. Lohalith will run in the women's 1,500-meter race on August 12.
Even before this year's Olympic games began, these 10 athletes have already won. Simply overcoming so many obstacles to achieve their Olympic dreams proves their strength and perseverance better than any medal. Though these athletes may be far from their friends and family, they know they've made them proud. Their presence at the games inspires everyone to believe that, not only is anything possible, but anyone can be the one to make it happen.
Your path to possible can start today.