The Olympics' refugee team is a 'symbol of hope' in Tokyo. Here's who's in the squad

Twenty-nine stateless athletes are hoping to raise awareness of the more than 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world when they compete as part of the special Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Games. Here, SBS News meets some of them.

Abdullah Sediqi

Abdullah Sediqi is dedicating his Tokyo Games performance to his mother. Source: Supplied

Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide.

Abdullah Sediqi found his confidence through sport, but he is battling a tragedy

Abdullah Sediqi has been a fighter all his life. The Afghanistan native took up taekwondo as an eight-year-old, supported by his number one fan; his mother.

"She would push me even when I wanted to give up," he tells SBS News. 

The sport instilled in him the values of discipline, hard work, respect, self-belief, and the importance of community.

"You can't achieve anything of value without a support team behind you," he says, referencing his training partners, coaches and family. 

Abdullah Sediqi with his coach Ali Reza Naser Azadani.
Source: Supplied

Sediqi is one of 29 stateless athletes picked to compete under the Olympic flag in Tokyo this month as part of the Games' only second-ever Refugee Olympic Team. 

Stateless athletes were initially allowed to participate via the independent athlete category, but this special team is set to stand as a 'symbol of hope' for the more than 80 million people currently displaced around the world. 

Sediqi's joy at making the team has been tempered by the death of his mother from COVID-19. 

"I thought things were finished at that moment," he says.

"After my mum died, I said to myself: 'Starting from now, I have to do [this] for myself and my mother. So I work for both of our dreams.'

"I put everything into this and I see now the results."

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Source: Instagram/abdullahsediqitkd68

Sediqi found himself drawing on the strength that served him well when he fled Afghanistan alone in 2017, travelling across land and sea to end up in Belgium. Death threats from gangs over his sporting ability precipitated the journey.

"From Iran, then to Turkey, then Greece, I was walking for 12 hours. Sometimes I was in a boat on the water. Sometimes I was sleeping at night in the jungle. I had a lot of problems."

Despite the hardships, he pushed through. 

"I have a big dream in my head ... I focus on my dream and focus on my goal."

Throughout his life, taekwondo has been a constant, and he wants to inspire others to find their confidence through sport. 

"It doesn't matter who you are, whether you are white, black, Muslim or Christian," he says. 

"They put down people and say 'you are refugee'. I want to say: Everything that you want, believe in your dreams and everything is possible."

Yusra Mardini's journey is one of heroics. She wants to see refugees treated better

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Source: Instagram/yusramardini

Yusra Mardini was part of the first Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Games in 2016. She says this time around she has unfinished business. 

"I was not completely satisfied with my performance," she says after not winning a medal in the 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle events. 

"I am mentally and physically better prepared this time." 

Mardini is also a UNHCR ambassador and realises others may see her as a role model. 

"At the beginning, I was ashamed of being called a refugee. I was ashamed of the whole story," she says. 

But the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony marked a turning point. 

Yusra Mardini wants countries work together to find resettlement options for refugees.
Source: Facebook/UNHCR

"It was the moment of entering the Olympic stadium that made me realise it is not about me. It's about the almost 65 million people displaced. Now the number is 82 million," she says. 

"This is a very sad number to me, but this is what motivates me now and keeps me going."

In 2015, as a 17-year-old, she fled Syria with her older sister, Sara. The 10km boat journey to the Greek island of Lesbos turned into a fight for survival when the boat engine failed 30 minutes after they departed. 

Only three people in the dinghy knew how to swim.

Refugee Olympic Team members speak to SBS News ahead of the Tokyo Games

Mardini's sister was the first to jump out of the boat to prevent it from sinking. Mardini was directed to stay put, given concerns about her ability to see without glasses and tendency to get dizzy.

Mardini says it was an unconscious decision to join her sister in the water, where they ended up swimming alongside the boat for three hours.

"To be honest, I did not think about anything ... it's like when the baby sees their mum doing something and they just do it. I felt the comfort that my sister is there.

"At least 90 per cent of the people on the boat, they didn't know how to swim. So I would be selfish if I would still be on the boat," she says. 

She eventually settled in Germany but says it took some time to work through her trauma and to speak openly and proudly about the refugee experience. 

"Don't judge a book by its cover. Get to know them, try to be open [to refugees]," she says of how she would like to see conversations around refugees being.

The Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Source: Getty Images

"What hurts me the most is looking at how the governments are dealing with [the refugee crisis]. Some governments are pushing back refugees to the water. Some governments are taking people to prison because they are crossing illegally. Okay, then find a legal way.

"We're nowhere near being good or okay towards refugees. We have to do way more to find a solution for those people to be safe again."

Cyrille Tchatchet hit rock bottom, but he is now helping others

Cyrille Tchatchet says weightlifting was crucial in building mental resilience in his battle with depression.
Source: UNHCR/Bla Szandelszky/AAP

After the high of representing Cameroon in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, Cyrille Tchatchet II left the athletes' village and found himself homeless and battling depression at the age of 19. 

For two months he lived under a bridge, afraid to ask for help. 

He was about to end his life when he phoned an organisation for help. He was then picked up by police and told he was about to be deported.

Tchatchet is thankful to have survived and he credits joining a local weightlifting club in the UK city of Birmingham on the advice of his GP, for beginning to turn things around.

"I am actually lucky to be alive because at the point when I called [for help] I was ready to [suicide]. But after that, I think I became a bit more resilient ... So I started looking at the positive things.

The experience with his GP also inspired him to become a mental health nurse and he graduated in 2019 with first-class honours.

He says the stigma around mental health is an issue both in Cameroon and in the UK - something he would like to see change. 

Cyrille Tchatchet has found renewed purpose in his work as a mental health nurse.
Source: UNHCR/Bla Szandelszky/AAP

"In my local language, there is not even a word for depression. So it is not even a thing," he says. 

"And same thing here [in the UK]. Even in the West, they think that 'oh, depression is for weak people' and 'nursing is for women, not for men'. Even when I got onto the course, someone said to me: 'why don't you go study sport science?'.

"I was like: I don't want to be a [sports scientist], I want to be a nurse."

Reflecting on how things could have been different when he was at his lowest, he says: "Being resilient, and being hopeful, it does help. Being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's something that is very good for your mental state." 

Swimming gave Alaa Maso a sense of community, but hard work got him to the Games 

Alaa Maso during the Olympic qualification for the 100m freestyle in Berlin.
Source: Getty Images

For Syrian-born swimmer Alaa Maso, being selected as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team has taken planning and hard work. 

"Plans shouldn't be called dreams. That was my motto always," he says. 

"If you want to work on something, go with the plan, go with the project, not a dream. Dreams are what you can have while sleeping, not while you're working."

As a 15-year-old he fled war-torn Syria. His training facility had been destroyed during aerial bombardments and the question of ongoing survival gained an increasing urgency.

"Staying in the country means only you're either going to be bombed out or you're going to be forcibly taken to one of the conflict sites," he says. 

The journey from Syria to eventually settle in Germany involved travelling by sea and walking on foot across three continents, which he did alone after being separated from his brother. He puts his survival down to his English-language skills, which he says he developed by playing video games and watching films including Lord of the Rings. 

"I had to walk 26 kilometres. It was a very huge group of people being organised by the police there. And we had to cross 26 kilometres on foot with a group of 300 people."

He also credits swimming for his positive outlook.  

"People tell me I am always optimistic and they ask me where that comes from. I think it is my connection to swimming," he says. 

Alaa Maso (centre in grey trunks) says he hopes to inspire others with his story.
Source: Supplied

His father taught him swimming from age four and became his coach. Participating in local swimming competitions was a big part of growing up and building a community, he says. 

"The atmosphere at the swimming carnivals would be electric and very community-oriented. I have very positive memories of those times."

He hopes his place on the team can inspire others. 

"I want to be a positive role model and help change the negative perceptions people have of refugees. You can achieve and contribute, despite the obstacles in your path."

The Refugee Olympic Team.
Source: IOC

IOC President Thomas Bach says the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team has been significant. 

"It's a message to the entire world to make the world aware of the magnitude of this crisis, which is growing every day," he said ahead of the Games. 

"It's also a message that these forcibly displaced people are an enrichment to all our societies and that we should embrace them like we do in the Olympic Games, to show all our unity in all our diversity."

A refugee team will also compete in the Paralympics next month. 

The full Refugee Olympic Team includes:

Abdullah Sediqi, taekwondo (-68kg)
Ahmad Badreddin Wais, cycling (time trial)
Aker Al Obaidi, wrestling (Greco-Roman -67kg)
Alaa Maso, swimming (freestyle 50m)
Angelina Nadai Lohalith OLY, athletics (1500m)
Aram Mahmoud, badminton (singles)
Cyrille Fagat Tchatchet II, weightlifting (-96kg)
Dina Pouryounes Langeroudi, taekwondo (-49kg)
Dorian Kalatela, athletics (100m)
Eldric Sella Rodriguez, boxing (-75kg)
Hamoon Derafshipoour, Karate (-67kg)
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa, athletics (5000m)
James Nyak Chiengjiek OLY, athletics (400m)
Kimia Alizadeh OLY, taekwondo (-57kg)
Luna Solomon, shooting (air rifle 10m)
Masomah Ali Zada, cycling (time trial)
Paulo Amotun Lokoro OLY, athletics (1500m)
Popole Misenga OLY, judo (-90kg and mixed team)
Rose Lokonyen Nathike OLY, athletics (800m)
Saeid Fazoula, canoeing (500m)
Sanda Aldass, judo (-57kg)
Tachlowini Gabriyesos, athletics (marathon)
Wael Shueb, karate (kata)
Wessam Salamana OLY, boxing (-57kg)
Yusra Mardini, OLY swimming (100m butterfly and freestyle)
Ahmad Alikaj, judo (Olympic Judo Mixed Team event)
Javad Majoub, judo (Olympic Judo Mixed Team event)
Muna Dahouk, judo (Olympic Judo Mixed Team event)
Nigara Shaenn, judo (Olympic Judo Mixed Team event)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes place 23 July-8 August 2021. Read more Olympics stories here. 

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au

Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.


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Published 23 July 2021 at 9:18pm
By Biwa Kwan

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