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Will Anybody Cheer for the Refugee Athletes at the Olympics?

This year, 10 athletes competed in the Rio Olympics as part of a special refugee team. Several of the athletes wondered whether they'd have any fans watching them.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

By now, the world has seen the first refugee team march proudly in the Opening Ceremony at the Rio Olympics.

By now, those 10 athletes' pasts have been well chronicled—the two Syrian swimmers, the six runners from South Sudan and Ethiopia, the pair of judo competitors from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lost in all the gold-medal hoopla this week, however, is what it was it's been like for some of those survivors to take their turns on the biggest stage of all.


"When I came to the venue, I was thinking: 'Will there be any fans for me?'" said Popole Misenga, 24, who competed in the men's -90kg division on Wednesday and who grew up in one of the areas worst affected by his country's civil war from 1998-2003.

Read More: Faye Sultan Represents Kuwait But Competes for the "Independent Olympic Athlete" Team

Instead, he was overwhelmed by support.

"There were so many!" he said. "I was so emotional. And when I saw [them] singing and chanting for me, I thought, 'I have to win this first fight to make my Brazilian fans happy."

He did both, by scoring a Yuko on Avtar Singh of India. Next, Misenga faced the 2015 world champion Gwak Donghan of South Korea.

"I gave him a tough moment till the last minute," Misenga said. "When he made his strike, it was a bit of a surprise to me but the tactics of my coach was excellent. With my technique and movement and Mr. Geraldo [Bernardes'] advice, I managed to fight."

Gwak won by Ippon and history will say that Misenga tied for ninth place in the event. That sells his achievement short by a wide margin, and Misenga knows it.

"I am a winner! I am a winner!" Misenga said a day later "I only trained one year and four months toward the Games. I will win a medal in the future. I will fight for my flag, the flag of the refugee team."

Yolande Mabika, 28, also fought on Wednesday, although she lost her first bout in the -70kg category, by Ippon, to Linda Bolder of Israel. Mabika said the Brazilian fans made her feel at home, and she too found motivation in defeat. "I went up there and fought," she said. "This is the meaning of fighting. You win one day and lose another. There is more fighting ahead. I will continue to study, to struggle, to fight."


When she spoke of loss, she wasn't talking about judo. "I lost a lot in my home country," she said. "For 10 years, I was separated from my family. I had to escape from war. A lot of people helped me to flee and I stayed in a refugee camp. That's where I learned judo and met Popole, in Kenya. For 18 years, I've never seen my family again."

She came to Brazil in 2013 for the world championships and stayed. But hunger was ever present. "I didn't have the strength to fight," she said, "and I tried to seek help for food. I forgot where I was. I slept in the street. Every day I was crying my eyes out. I didn't speak Portuguese; I spoke French. Everything was very difficult for me."

Mabika eventually found her way to Reacao, as sports institute for underprivileged kids, where coach Bernardes always had her back.

"He was buying food for me every day," she said, and when her roommate lost her job and told her she had to leave, "Coach said, 'No, our institute will support you.'" He gave her an allowance so she could get her own place.

"When you live in the house of other people, you can't say freely what you think and everything stays in your heart," she said. "You can't have temper. So to pay rent, to live alone to keep my mindset….Geraldo gave me money to pay for rent. He helped me to this day. We are at home now. We are here to build a new story. I want to forget everything that happened in the past. I want to be happy.

"Now I am looking into the future. I want to participate in 2020 Games. I will train harder. I will not stop. I will continue from here."

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