There's an all-refugee team at the Olympics—and this teen who fled Iraq will be rooting for it


As the world looks to Rio this Friday for the start of what’s already been a contentious Olympic Games, 18-year-old Abdalla and his family will be in Berlin, watching one particular team that means a lot to them.

For the first time ever, the Olympics will include a team of refugees–ten athletes from around the world who have had to leave their home countries, and their athletic ambitions, behind.

That’s something that Abdalla (referred to solely by his first name due to safety concerns), who trained to be a kick boxer in his home country, can very much relate to. He fled Iraq with his family last year, making the treacherous journey across from Iraq to Turkey and then across the Mediterranean. That route alone has claimed 2,443 lives in the first half of this year alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The International Olympic Committee announced earlier this year that #TeamRefugees, which includes athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will compete in the games, funded by the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity Program.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the word,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the time. “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”

Abdalla’s family was forced to leave Iraq, he told me, because they feared for their lives amid political instability and the constant threat of physical violence. “The situation was so difficult in Iraq where we were staying,” he said through a translator. “It was so, so dangerous for anyone to stay because both warring sides were so dangerous to people. We were afraid and we were concerned about our lives, so we came from Iraq to Germany.”

After everything his family has been through, seeing a team of refugees carrying a banner at the Olympic Opening Ceremony is a matter of pride, and a reclamation of the word “refugees”, he told me.

“When I first heard about this I felt really happy because having a refugee team in the Olympics represents and proves to the whole world that the word ‘refugees’ is not always associated with fear and weakness,” he said. “We can prove to the world that we have a lot of potential. Unfortunately we weren’t able to fulfill this potential in our countries because of the wars but now we can prove to the world that we can do a lot of things.”

Abdalla is being featured in a campaign put together by UNICEF, the UNHCR, the International Rescue Committee, and other organizations to bolster support for Team Refugees as the games begin. He talks some more about what the team means to him in this video, produced and directed by Unit 9 studios:

Since arriving in Germany last October with his mother, sister and brother, Abdalla has started to settle in to life in Germany, with the goal of eventually getting back on track with his kick boxing career.

“Right now I’m going to school and trying to learn German, it’s been difficult for me because it’s very different from my own language, but I have to learn it because I’m staying in a foreign country,” he said. “I go to a camp for training. Everything is okay right now.”

He’s studying and training in Berlin; he told me he hopes to make it to the Olympics in 2020. He’ll be trying out for Team Refugees.

“I will keep training, even for years if that’s what it takes, to become part of that team,” he told me.

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