In 2015, 65 million people were displaced from their homes due to conflict or natural disasters. The same year in October, the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team at the United Nations General Assembly. Receiving the message of hope and inclusion, in the following year, at the Rio Olympics 2016, 10 athletes competed under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team.
This year, the contingent has grown from 10 to 29 athletes who are competing without a country's flag beside their names. The 29 athletes come from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cameroon – all of them with their own extraordinary tale of leaving behind a land of hopelessness and fulfilling their dreams. Here's the story of two athletes who refused to give up and is now competing at the grandest stage in the sports world.
Cyrille Tchatchet II – The Cameroonian Who Refused To Return
Originally from Cameroon, 19-year-old Cyrille Tchatchet travelled to the UK to compete at the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow, representing his country in the men's 85kg weightlifting event. However, he never returned home with the rest of his Cameroon contingent – the reason for which he still feels uncomfortable to discuss. He fled his team base and reached Brighton, and slept on the streets. Living under a bridge in a completely new country, he increasingly became isolated and depressed and even contemplated suicide.
He refers to those moments when he thought of suicide in Brighton as his turning point because it was then when he sought help. Cyrille eventually called a suicide hotline number, and police arrived and picked him up. It took Cyrille nearly two years to get the refugee status since he then applied for asylum while in custody. Several good Samaritans helped him relocate to Birmingham and get in touch with a counsellor.
Tchatchet joined a weightlifting club in Birmingham and was soon he was back competing. He started at the regional level and then moved on to British Championship as a UK resident, reported BBC. He broke several national records in the UK and won at 94kg and 96kg category. The IOC noticed him and has since funded him with $1,500 a month and preparing him to compete at the Tokyo Games for the Refugee Team.
His experience with depression and isolation also motivated him the vocation mental health nurse. Cyrille has a first-class degree in mental health nursing, and he worked as a frontline health worker during Britain's first COVID-19 lockdown. The Cameroon-born athlete will be competing in the 96kg category weightlifting at the ongoing Tokyo Games. His event is scheduled for July 31.
Yusra Mardini – The Swimmer Who Saved Fellow Refugees
In 2015, four years after the Syrian War had begun, 17-year-old Mardidi left her home in war-ravaged Darayya. Much like Cyrille Tchatchet, she too had represented Syria in the international circuit. Even before 2015, her family had thought of fleeing the country. But when their house was flattened and her father, Ezzat, a swimmer who competed on Syria's national swimming team, was arrested and beaten up, leaving the country became necessary to survive.
Her family decided that only Yusra and her sister Sarah had to leave, as it was impossible for the entire family to escape. Her daily two-hours training came in handy when the engine of the smuggled boat that was supposed to take them from the Turkish coast to their haven stopped working. The boat designed to carry seven people was overloaded with 20 started to sink.
Yusra and her sister stayed afloat for three hours before finally reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, pulling the boat along with them with the help of two other refugees. They also managed to save the lives of other refugees on the boat. Yusra trekked from Greece to Germany, where she now lives.
Now 22-year-old, Yusra participated in her second Olympics at the Tokyo Games. She has previously competed at the Rio Olympics 2016, where she won her heat in the 100 metres butterfly. One among the 29-strong team of refugees, Yusra, competed in the same event this year, on July 24, but she won't be progressing to the semi-finals.
"I am so proud of the fact that I am representing 80 million refugees around the world knowing I am sending a message of hope to all of them doing what I love, also showing the world that refugees won't give up easily and will keep on dreaming even after going through tough journeys," Yusra said. While hundreds of Olympians swim for medals, Yusra Mardini has lived the life where she had to swim for life itself.