On the evening of Friday 5 August 2016, the first ever Refugee Olympic Team walked out to rapturous applause during the opening ceremony underneath the Olympic Flag in the Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. It was a powerful moment, one movies are made of: a group of highly gifted individuals who have suffered unimaginable hardship, all odds stacked against them, showing immense courage and dedication before travelling to Brazil to showcase their talents on the world’s stage. A beautiful story and one in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deserves credit for assisting these athletes in making it happen.
”They have fled anguish in search not of a better life, but of life itself”
Amidst my joy though, I was reminded of the horrifying reality that these are just 10 people out of an estimated 21.3 million refugees and 10 million stateless people (who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement) in the world today. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these people, given the opportunity, would be able to able to fulfill their aspirations whether they be competing at the Olympics, getting an education, feeling secure, being reunited with loved ones – or all of the above for that matter. Some of these aspirations may not sound as glamorous as those of Olympians but they are in every way as important.
In a powerful piece on refugees in the New York Times this week, Roger Cohen wrote ”They have fled anguish in search not of a better life, but of life itself”. This was a sentiment reflected in RRDP’s research findings from the unofficial Calais camp, which showed that 26% of participants wanted to be reunited with family in the UK, 36.4% wished to gain further education (more than 50% already had secondary education or higher, some 22.7% had university degrees, and 2.9% either a Master’s degree or PhD), 25% wanted to contribute to society as skilled workers (14.7% as highly skilled workers such as carpenters, technicians etc.) and 11% aspired to run their own business, work in sales or in an office environment.
The right to a family life, to education and to work are fundamental rights but, sadly, they remain aspirations that are out of reach for many refugees.
The Refugee Olympic Team is clearly a positive story that shows what people can achieve when the appropriate support is provided and talents are allowed to flourish. The IOC provided a whopping US $2m to help develop relief projects through sport and fund all things necessary for Yusra Mardini and her teammates to realise their goals in Brazil this summer. I only hope that many more refugees get to experience that same satisfaction whilst pursuing their own ambitions.
Nicholas Cotterill is a research coordinator for the Refugee Rights Data Project and also an MSc candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science studying International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. Follow Nicholas on Twitter @njcotterill