Refugee Athletes Compete at the Olympics

The 31st Olympic Games in Rio are different than any other Olympics in history. For the first time ever, 10 refugee athletes are competing under the Olympic flag, representing roughly 60 million refugees around the world. These athletes fled war, famine, and other disasters — including religious-based violence.

Syrian refugee and swimmer Yusra Mardini, who fled from the religious-based civil war and ISIS violence in Damascus, said she and her fellow teammates hope to humanize the status of all the world’s refugees.

“Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war,” Mardini said. “My message at these games is just ‘Never give up.”

Yusra and her sister, Sarah, fled to Europe in August 2015 like so many others — in an overloaded dingy from Turkey. When their boat took on water, they jumped in the freezing cold Aegean Sea and swam three-and-a-half hours to the shores of the Greek island, Lesbos.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “The Syrian crisis has evolved into a largely sectarian conflict.” The al-Assad regime targets Sunni Muslims, while ISIS continues to target both the regime and the religious minorities. As a result of the conflict, the UN predicts that 8.7 million Syrians will be displaced inside Syria in 2016, and 4.8 million have fled. Also hailing from Syria on the refugee team is Rami Anis.

The refugee Olympic team also hails members who have fled Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Yiech Pur Biel is one of the representatives from South Sudan. He is considered one of the country’s “lost boys” — a term coined for those displaced by the Sudanese civil war that left 2.5 milllion dead. The decade-old conflict pitted the predominantly Muslim north against the largely Christian south. In the past ten years, the country has been ravaged by war and famine, with the current situation worsening daily.

My message at these games is just ‘Never give up.’ — Yusra Mardini

In a world seemingly full of chaos and hatred, the Olympics offer a glimmer of hope. Some of the most distinct characteristics of the games every four years are peace, respect and good-sportsmanship. Perhaps unintentionally, the games represent the world’s largest interfaith gathering. The 11,000 athletes who have congregated from 205 countries represent all the major religions of the world. In fact, because religion plays such an influential role in the lives of so many of these athletes, the Olympic and Paralympic Villages feature a multi-faith center with prayer spaces representing Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.

As the 31st Olympics wind down, it is important to remember the roles both religion and the pursuit of religious freedom and peace play in these games.

Abby Berg, Director of Government Relations

Action Items:

1. Read the Olympic article “Refugee Olympic Athletes Deliver Message of Hope for Displaced People.”

2. Read about the Global Business and Interfaith Peace Awards that will be awarded at the Paralympics to business executives who work to promote religious freedom in business.