Athletes in Rio Olympics’ refugee team carry flag for others

Competing in judo, Misenga is one of 10 refugee athletes who will march as a team behind the white Olympic flag when the Rio Games begin

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Popole Misenga broke down crying for the family in Congo that he hasn’t seen in 15 years, and for all the world’s refugees who haven’t been as lucky as he’s been.

Competing in judo, Misenga is one of 10 refugee athletes who will march as a team behind the white Olympic flag when the Rio de Janeiro Games open on Friday at the opening ceremony, a first for any Olympics.

Misenga began to cry on Saturday as he told his story, which provided a rare upbeat moment in the difficult run-up to South America’s first games.

“I have two brothers and I haven’t seen them,” explained Misenga, who has settled in Brazil. “I don’t know how they look anymore because we were separated since we were small. So I send hugs and kisses to my brothers.”

Rubbing tears from his eyes, the 24-year-old athlete delivered a message for his family: “If you can see me on television now, you can see that your brother is here in Brazil and alive and well.”

Misenga, who hopes one day to afford to buy airplane tickets so his family can visit Brazil, said being on the refugee team means he’s representing something bigger than his native country or national flag.

“We’re fighting for all the refugees in the world,” he said. “I’m not sad that I’m not going to carry the flag of my country. I will carry a flag of many countries.”

Yolande Mabika also fled Congo, and is also a judo athlete. But she’s in grief over losing her country.

“I will raise the Olympic flag, but I’m a little bit sad in my heart and mind because I cannot march under the flag of my country,” she said.

She also cried as she described refugees as forgotten people.

“Everybody in the world talks about the refugees having no major importance,” she said. “We are going to show that the refugee is capable of doing everything that other people around the world do.”

The Olympic refugees are superb athletes, but no one expects a medal from them. But that’s beside the point.

“Their country was broken, but they have the spirit of humanity, the spirit of athletes,” said Tegla Loroupe, the head of the delegation and a three-time Olympian from Kenya.

Yusra Mardini was a competitive swimmer in Syria until she left Damascus with her sister a year ago and settled in Berlin.

She said she still dreams of representing Syria, but also recognizes a bigger mission of “representing the biggest flag — which is all countries.”

“We’re going to represent you guys in a really good way,” she said, speaking to other anonymous refugees. “I hope you’re going to learn from our story: That you have to move on, because life will never stop for your problems.”

Fellow swimmer Rami Anis fled Syria five years to avoid being drafted into the army. He still talks of competing for his country of birth — maybe at the next Olympics.

“I am representing people who lost their rights, who suffered injustice,” he said. “I hope in Tokyo in 2020 there will be no refugees and we will able to compete under our own flag.”

Misenga was even more upbeat.

“We are not sad anymore, we are very happy,” he said. “Now it’s different.”

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