This past weekend Rio de Janeiro took the world stage for the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games. The Parade of Nations featured 207 teams. The last team to enter the stadium was Brazil, the host country. But as the team before Brazil entered the stadium, the crowd cheered and rose to its feet. This 10-person team was unique. They did not walk under the flag of their home countries. They were rejected by their countries of birth, forced to flee because of violence or war. This is Team Refugee. These 10 athletes come from South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria.
At that moment during the opening ceremony these Refugees were honored and celebrated. But millions of refugees around the world experience, not honor and celebration, but persecution and rejection. Walls and barriers — literal and rhetorical — are erected to keep refugees out. Under the guise of resurgent nationalism hatred toward refugees spills out at rallies and across social media. Thinly veiled xenophobia extols making our nation great, as if keeping out the other improves our standing in some cosmic contest. If one measures greatness by sports prowess, then we should be proud to welcome those 10 Olympic Athletes who make up Team Refugee.
Yet the greatness of those 10 individuals lies not in athletic ability but in their spirit and character. Take 23 year old, Rose Lokonyen, the flag bearer for Team Refugee in the opening ceremony. When she was 10 years old, Rose and her family fled what is now southern Sudan to Kenya. Today she trains with Tegla Loroupe — coach, marathon champion, and spokeswoman for peace education, and women’s rights. While Olympic athletes seek a medal, 21-yr old Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, also from southern Sudan, seeks something far more valuable, her parents. Anjelina was separated from her family when she was 6 years old, as they fled the war in Sudan. She hopes that by participating in the Olympics, she will find her parents again. Yonas Kinde, originally from Ethiopia, won multiple marathons in Europe, but was not allowed to compete before in the Olympics because no country claims him as a citizen.
Each of those 10 athletes in Team Refugee symbolizes the struggles and difficulties that refugees around the world overcome every day. For now we celebrate their accomplishments, but once the Olympics is done will we forget the over 60 million displaced people around the world? Will we return to seeing Refugees as a burden, rather than a blessing to our country? Let us resolve today to honor the spirit of Team Refugee by honoring refugees. How can you help? First, support refugees by standing #WithRefugees and #TeamRefugee. Second, meet local refugees and learn their stories. In the past 5 years thousands of refugees have moved into Cedar Rapids and the surrounding areas. Talk with them about the obstacles they overcame in their journey to the United States and you will see your life through new eyes. Third, stand against the anti-refugee/immigrant rhetoric that clamors for attention. Talk with your neighbors, your fellow church members, your social media network, and your family members to encourage welcome for refugees. Let Team Refugee spur us to accept and applaud refugees in our midst.
• Caleb Gates is a refugee resettlement case manager for Catholic Charities based out of Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org