No one embodies ‘Olympic spirit’ like the athletes on this summer’s refugee team

Popole Misenga

It’s a story that embodies the Olympic spirit like few others: Athletes who have been displaced from their home countries, living as refugees in strange lands, get a chance to compete in the Olympic Games.

It’s happening in Rio this summer. Under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team, 10 athletes from four different countries will march in the opening ceremony carrying the Olympic flag. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach says the team is “a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of [the refugee] crisis.” 

Two of the athletes are already here in Rio de Janeiro. Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga are judo fighters from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were abandoned in Rio by their coach and DRC officials when they came to Brazil to compete in the Judo World Championships in 2013. Mabika said she and Misenga were left in their hotel room, where they stayed scared and starving for three days before she ventured outside.

Mabika said she stopped people on the street who had black skin like hers and tried to explain her situation in French, her first language. Some friendly bystanders directed her and Misenga to a beauty salon run by African immigrants, she said. After four days of sleeping on the floor of the salon, other good Samaritans took them to a neighborhood of Rio that is home to many African immigrants, including some from Congo.

That was three years ago. Now granted refugee status, the two athletes are training in judo again. Mabika has her own home in the perhaps aptly named neighborhood of Bonsucesso (Good success). Misenga has married a local Brazilian woman and has a young son.

Mabika says her story shows that not every refugee tale ends in misery.

“I’m now happy again, for this Olympic competition,” she said. “I’m going to fight in these Olympics to defend all the refugees in the world. I’m not training here to lose. I’m training for victory. God will lift up all refugees to get a good result.”

Yolande Bukasa Mabika
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, judo fighter from the Democratic Republic of Congo.Will Carless

Mabika will compete in the 70kg class of the women’s judo competition. Misenga will compete in the men’s 90kg class. The two athletes have been training at the Instituto Reaçao, a university in the north of Rio. There they are coached by legendary Rio judoka Geraldo Bernardes, who has led four Brazilian teams to the Olympic Games.

Mabika said she has been quite overwhelmed by the attention her personal story is getting. She and Misenga started training at the gym merely to continue in the sport they love, she said. They never imagined they would get a chance to compete in the Olympics.

Now that her story is being told across the globe, Mabika, who said she is still struggling to find her family, said she hopes they will see her on TV and see that she is doing just fine.

“I’m OK. I just hope God protects them, like he has protected me here,” she said. “I’m just missing my family, I’m missing everyone. I’ve been separated from my family for 18 years already — my father, my four brothers — I miss them a lot. One day, we’ll be together again. I’m working now to find them. If they can also work to find me, I’m here. I’m here in Brazil.”

Misenga feels grateful to the people of Brazil, a place that feels more like home now that he’s starting a family.

“Thank you for welcoming us,” he said. “My family is now Brazilian, I have a Brazilian wife and a Brazilian son.”

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