A harrowing road to Rio: Refugees who fled violence at home compete under the Olympic flag

Just before the start of the race – her first as an Olympic swimmer – Yusra Mardini took a moment to look down.

The 18-year-old Syrian was trying to keep things simple, focusing on what she needed to do to in the first heat of the women’s 100-meter butterfly.

“I was only thinking about water,” she said.

Competing at these 2016 Summer Games is not so straightforward for Mardini, who less than a year ago was fighting for her life in the bitterly cold Aegean Sea.

Diving out of a small boat overcrowded with refugees, she paddled for 3½ hours, her body going numb as she helped pull the dinghy to a distant island.

“Without swimming,” she said recently, “I would never be alive.”

Now she belongs to a small team created specifically for athletes who have fled their homelands because of violence. The International Olympic Committee has provided them with coaches and financial support and allowed them to compete in Rio de Janeiro under the Olympic flag.

There are two Syrian swimmers and two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo, five runners from South Sudan and a marathoner from Ethiopia.

Surrounded by news media all week – and cheered at the opening ceremony – they have spoken about not only their gratitude but also the responsibility they feel as representatives for so many people like them around the world.

When Mardini finally took position in the starting blocks on Saturday afternoon, when she sprang forward into the pool, there was something to prove.

“We are still humans,” she said. “We can do something. We can achieve.”

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At the end of last year, a record 65.3 million people were displaced from their native countries by fear of “persecution, conflict, generalized violence or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order,” the United Nations estimated.

Believing sports might raise awareness, the U.N. and the IOC created the Refugee Olympic Team, identifying 43 candidates and giving them money to train.

In June, 10 were selected for an inaugural squad headed to Rio.

“These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.

Mardini and her sister left their war-torn city of Damascus in 2015, traveling through Lebanon before attempting the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

When their boat began to take on water, the sisters and two other people jumped overboard and used a rope to pull the dinghy to safety on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“Your body is almost like … done,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I can describe that.”

Stories like hers are common on the refugee team.

The South Sudanese runners – all of them in their 20s – talk of childhoods racked by violence. James Nyang Chiengjiek said, “When the fighting is done, they normally destroy the houses; they normally kill all the people.”

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith fled from her burning house in the middle of the night. Yiech Pur Biel was only 10  when soldiers attacked his village.

“My mother and brother and sister … we sleep in the bushes,” he said. “In the bushes, we eat only fruit and leaves for three days.”

Some families kept running. Others stayed but sent the boys away for fear they might be conscripted to fight.

“When my dad died, there was no one to protect me,” said Chiengjiek, whose father was a soldier. “My mother told me, ‘You cannot be in this village.’”

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A few of the refugees were fortunate.

Mardini reached Berlin and, having represented Syria in the 2012 world championships, was assisted by a local swim club. Rami Anis, her 25-year-old countryman, escaped the bombings of Aleppo for Belgium. Ethiopian runner Yonas Kinde – the oldest team member at 36 – relocated to Luxembourg.

The South Sudanese athletes crossed into Kenya and found shelter at the Kakuma camp, which houses nearly 200,000 refugees.

Still young, separated from their families, they were taken in by strangers.

“You must have someone who can care for you,” Biel said.

Camp life was difficult, with row upon row of huts built on bare earth. Sports was  a diversion, and the kids got help from an unexpected source.

Three-time Olympian Tegla Loroupe runs a peace foundation in northern Kenya that, among other things, seeks to encourage athletics.

“I have been in the conflict areas myself,” the former long-distance runner said. “The people in these areas have talent.”

The five refugee team members were naturally gifted as kids, some of them running as fast as adults, others showing skill on the soccer field. They signed up for Loroupe’s tryout and earned a place at her Nairobi training center.

“We can now say this was the beginning of life,” said Paulo Amotun, who became a 1,500-meter runner.

When the IOC began filling its refugee roster, the Loroupe foundation was a logical place to look.

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Popole Misenga remembers hiding in the forest for more than a week. Yolande Bukasa doesn’t remember much at all, only running and being alone.

As children, the Congolese natives were caught in a vicious civil war and ended up at the same youth center in Kinshasa. There, they learned judo.

Misenga and Bukasa became good enough to compete on an international level and eventually represented their country at the 2013 world championships in Rio de Janeiro.

At that competition, they sneaked away from the team hotel to seek asylum.

The transition went smoothly enough for Misenga but, as a young woman, Bukasa struggled.

“I was going around on the streets and I was crying,” she recalled. “I spoke only French. I didn’t understand any Portuguese, so I couldn’t get a job.”

Life improved a couple of years later when a refugee center helped her complete her resume. She and Misenga eventually qualified for IOC funding.

Neither can quite believe they will be competing in the Olympics when judo begins later this week. Bukasa shed different tears upon making the team.

“My head was spinning,” she said.

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At a time when some nations are questioning whether to accept refugees, Bach made his opinion clear in a speech at the opening ceremony.

“We are living in a world of selfishness,” the IOC president said, “where certain people claim to be superior to others.”

Chiengjiek knows what those people think, but said: “’Refugee’ is just a name.”

The 400-meter runner and his teammates have formed a new family, bonding with one another during free time at the athletes’ village.

The Olympics have been dizzying so far, with appearances at IOC events and news conferences. Everywhere the athletes go, microphones and cameras are nearby. 

Misenga wonders whether his two brothers in Congo, whom he has not seen for years, might spot him on television. The thought brings tears to his eyes.

“I send to them my hugs and kisses,” he said.

Mardini thinks in bigger terms, explaining: “We want to tell everyone a message of hope.”

At the aquatics stadium on Saturday, she won her heat but did not swim fast enough to advance.

Her next race – the 100-meter freestyle on Wednesday – figures to be just as tough, but medals aren’t all that matter at these Games.

“It was a good feeling in the water,” she said. “I’m happy for that.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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