Warfare language pervades sports. A quick listen to Olympic coverage yields numerous analogies. It was a fight to the finish. She conquered her opponent. The match went into sudden death. In a fighting sport like Judo, warfare metaphors would seem particularly apt. But for two Judoka members of Team Refugee at the Rio Olympics, war is more than metaphor describing their sport. War took their families and homes.
Popole Misenga and Yolanda Mabika were born in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Between 1998 and 2003, the deadliest war since World War Two claimed the lives of more than 5 million Africans. DRC was the epicenter of Africa’s Great War. When Popole was 9 years old, a rebel group attacked his village killing his mother. Popole ran away and was separated from his brothers. He stayed in the forest for eight days. Yolanda was so young when separated from her parents that she only remembers running alone and being picked up by a helicopter. Popole and Yolanda eventually made it to a center for displaced children in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, a journey of over 1,500 miles by car. While there, they were introduced to Judo. Both excelled and eventually joined the DRC national Judo team.
But all was not well. When they would lose a competition their coach would lock them in a room for days with only coffee and bread. In 2013 Popole and Yolanda traveled with the DRC national team to the World Judo Championship in Brazil. Upon arrival their coach disappeared leaving them with no passports, no food, and no uniforms. Deprived of food and wearing a borrowed robe, Popole lost his first round. They decided to risk flight for a chance at asylum. Alone in a foreign country with a foreign language they fled their hotel and began asking in French “Where do the Africans live?” After two days they found a refugee center.
Popole and Yolanda like millions of refugees around the world faced war and lost family members. Yet unlike those millions of refugees, Popole and Yolanda along with eight other refugees from South Sudan, Syria, and Ethiopia competed as members of the first ever Refugee Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. No medal would come for these two athletes. But their story speaks to realities far more important than gold, silver, or bronze.
Popole and Yolanda do not know if any of their immediate family still is alive. At a news conference in Rio, Popole shed tears as he explained: “I have two brothers and I haven’t seen them. 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.” Yolanda hopes that if her family still is alive, they will see her on TV and contact her so they can be reunited.
The sequence of events which led Popole and Yolanda from DRC as children to athletes in Rio is unique to them, but their experience mirrors that of millions of refugees around the world. In the past year I have helped welcome numerous refugee families who fled from DRC not far from Popole and Yolanda’s original home. These individuals are not world-class athletes, but like Popole and Yolanda, they have seen war and lost loved ones.
When asked why they were competing in the Olympics, Popole said, “We’re fighting for all the refugees in the world.” Yolanda added, “I cannot fight for my country … I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world.” Refugees deserve honor and protection. Not just because it is right. But because in the words of Yolanda, ‘Everybody in the world talks about the refugees having no major importance. We are going to show that the refugee is capable of doing everything that other people around the world do.”
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• Caleb Gates is a refugee resettlement case manager for Catholic Charities based out of Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org