For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics : Parallels Ten refugees — swimmers, runners and judo athletes — have been named to the first-ever Olympics refugee team. They'll compete this August in Rio, where two of the refugee athletes already live.
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For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics

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For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics

For The First Time, A Team Of Refugees Will Compete At The Olympics

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/480628401/480657715" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Geneva today, the International Olympic Committee announced a team that will be competing in the Olympics for the first time ever, and it's made up of refugees. Among them are two Congolese athletes who are already living in Brazil. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro has this story.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Agile, fast and relentless, Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika are now training for Olympic glory in judo. Like many refugees, they faced war and hunger in their native Democratic Republic of Congo. But they ended up displaced here in Rio, far away from their home, in a less-than-usual way.

YOLANDE MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-eight-year-old Yolande recounts in Portuguese how both she and 23-year-old Popole were part of the DRC's national judo team, who came to Rio three years ago to take part in the Judo World Cup. During the competition, their coach took the whole team's documents, all their money, and he disappeared, she says.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We were hungry," she says, "and no one was helping us. I would approach black people like me on the street, speaking French, asking if they were African. I couldn't understand or speak Portuguese then," she says. Finally, she says, she was pointed to a hair salon, where many Africans worked. Both her and Popole slept there for weeks.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yolande says they both became official refugees here, but they had little support. Her first job was cleaning heavy industrial equipment. She was begging people to be able to go back to the sport she loved. Local news picked up her story and put her in touch with the judo coach who has been helping her and Popole.

POPOLE MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Popole says they are now refugees twice over. Both he and Yolande lost contact with their families years ago.

MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "There were kids who were 5 and 6 who were actually fighting in Congo," he says. "I was trying to run away from all that."

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yolande says she learned judo at a Unicef refugee center that she grew up in from the age of 10, after she was forced to flee from her family. She joined Congo's national team in her teens, where she says conditions were awful. If you didn't medal, she says, they would starve us. It was a tough life, she says - very tough, which is why they both decided to stay on in Brazil after what happened with their coach during the World Cup. Eight other athletes have been selected to take part in the team, which will walk in the opening ceremony under the Olympic flag. They include two Syrian swimmers and three South Sudanese runners. The IOC says their participation in the games will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world.

MISENGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Popole now has gotten married to a Brazilian woman, and he has a child. Yolande, two weeks ago, was able to rent a small apartment in a favela or shantytown.

MABIKA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It's the dream of every sports person," she says, "to be in the Olympics. It's a chance you'll never forget. If I ever have my own family," she says, "I will tell my children everything I have been going through in my life to get here." Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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