Mardini and her sister, along with a few other skilled swimmers, jumped out of the boat. It would be a three hour trip through frigid water to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, the waypoint for hundreds of thousands of people hoping to make new lives in Europe.
But Mardini knew she could swim the whole way.
This summer, she will swim at the Olympics in Brazil. Not for her native Syria, whose devastating civil war forced her and her family to flee last year, but for others like her, for refugees. Last month, the International Olympic Committee announced its support for her participation on a potential team composed solely of refugees, and on Wednesday, that team won approval from the IOC’s executive board.
After arriving in Lesbos, Mardini made the arduous overland journey north through Europe, according to the Associated Press. Now she lives in Germany, practicing the butterfly stroke at a swimming pool built for the 1930 Olympics and dreaming of her trip to Rio de Janeiro.
Mardini is one of 43 displaced athletes considered for the team, which IOC president Thomas Bach has said will likely be whittled down to between five and ten people, depending on the athletes’ abilities. The IOC will cover travel and participation expenses, coaches, insurance and the obligatory anti-doping tests, just as a national government would. And like any other country’s delegation, the refugee athletes will be housed together in the athlete village, they’ll walk in together at the opening ceremony, they’ll share uniforms and technical officials.
But if they win a medal — when they win a medal, some might say — the Olympic flag will be raised behind them, and the Olympic anthem will play.
“I cannot fight for my country. I will fight for the Olympics,” Yolande Mabika, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told the Guardian. “I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world.”
Mabika has been living in Rio de Janeiro for three years, since she and fellow Congolese athlete Popole Misenga made a risky bid for asylum during the World Judo Championships there in 2013. They didn’t know the language, the city or even the laws for asylum, but they feared death in their homeland more than they feared an uncertain future in Brazil.
Misenga and Mabika said they were mistreated by their old coaches, who would lock them up when they lost and sometimes deprive them of food. But even more worrying were the spasms of violence that still wrack the DRC even after nine years of civil conflict, sometimes known as “Africa’s first world war,” ended in 2003. The bloodshed is particularly bad in the country’s east, where Misenga and Mabika are from — lingering disputes from the second civil war have metastasized into a conflict involving the Congolese government and rebel groups from multiple countries.
Misenga’s mother died amid this violence, and his brother has been missing for years. He had no choice but to flee when he could, he told the Guardian.
“I wondered sometimes how to live when so many people were dying,” he told the Guardian.
But now, training in Rio with the Brazilian Judo Confederation, he tries to push thoughts like that away.
“We practice judo to forget everything we saw in the war,” he said. “If you think about it, you lose.”
Along with Mardini, Misenga is one of three athletes who has already been publicly identified by the IOC as a candidate for the refugee team. It’s not clear whether Mabika is being considered, but the Catholic charity Caritas, which works with refugees in Brazil, told the Guardian that she qualifies.
Though this is not the first time athletes who could not compete for the native countries have participated in the games under the Olympic flag (in 2012, athletes from the new nation of South Sudan competed under the Olympic flag because their own country’s Olympic committee hadn’t yet been formed). But never before have refugees competed as a team of their own.
Worldwide, there are some 20 million refugees living in countries not their own, the United Nations said earlier this year, meaning that the handful of people on “Team ROA” (Refugee Olympic Athletes) will represent a group larger than the populations of more than half the nations competing in the 2016 games.
But the number of people on the team “is not the point,” Michael Schirp, deputy head of media relations and public affairs at the German Olympic Sports Confederation, told The Washington Post last month. “The point is that they stand for these million. They are one of the very popular chances to give face to the anonymity.”
But for the athletes involved, the appeal of being on the ROA team is nothing so abstract as that.
For Mabika, it’s an unparalleled chance to finally get in touch with the family she hasn’t heard from since she left the Democratic Republic of the Congo three years ago.
“If my family see me on television, I can give my number, everything. Because I want one day to talk even with my dad and my brothers,” she told the Guardian. “If I participated in the Olympics, I think it would change my life.”
For Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian refugee now working for the postal service in Belgium, it’s an opportunity to make proud the father who helped her take up tae kwon do when she was only 11. He still lives in Iran.
“Many times in my head I thought it would not happen because of politics, visa problems, lack of money and I could travel to ranking event,” she told the World Taekwondo Federation after qualifying for the Olympics at a tournament in Istanbul this year. When she competes in Rio this summer, she said, “I do it for my dad and my family.”
For William Kopati, the IOC’s refugee team is nothing more than a glimmer of hope. The 22-year-old was once the Central African Republic’s national champion in the high jump. But now he’s living in the sprawling Mole refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he told the UN High Commission on Refugees, which profiled Kopati and other athletes at Mole last year.
Some six thousand people have been killed in the Central African Republic since communal violence broke out in 2013, splintering the country mostly along religious lines. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced, and roughly 20,000 Central Africans now live in the Mole camp, a sparse community of tents and rough-hewn buildings two hours from the nearest Congolese town.
Kopati spent part of his childhood there, when the CAR was going through another surge in violence. He returned in March 2013, after his home in the Central African Republic was attacked. He brought with him his sneakers, a medal and memories of a time when sports was all he had to think about.
“My first dream is to continue with athletics,” Kopati told the UNHCR. “I love it so much, but I had to abandon it because of the situation in my country.”
It’s been three years since Kopati has had access to a coach and proper training facilities. Even if he could get the attention of an IOC representative, it’s not clear he would be in good enough shape to qualify for Rio.
But Misenga, the Congolese judoka, said he’d fight for people like him.
“I represent everyone,” Misenga told the Guardian. “I’ll get a medal for all refugees.”