Picture by © 2019

What and who is a refugee?

After an inaugural IOC Refugee Olympic Team debuted at Rio 2016, there will be a second such team for Tokyo 2020. Here, we explain what and who a refugee is, exactly.
By Nick McCarvel

In a world of nearly 8 billion people, someone is displaced from their home every two seconds.

Of those displaced people, some are refugees, known as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 25 million people fit said category as of 2017.

While fleeing persecution, refugees are protected under international law and must not be expelled or returned to the nation from which they fled, where their life or freedom could be at risk.

Refugees - a global picture

While nearly 6 million refugees are cared for across 60 camps in the Middle East by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a growing number of refugees live in urban areas around the globe, as well.

It’s estimated that half of the world’s refugees today are under the age of 18, and since the 1990s the number of refugees who have been able to return home has shrunk: From 1.5 million per year to around 385,000/year.

Refugees can be granted asylum in foreign countries, as some of the members of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team have.

Real-life examples: Refugee athletes' stories

IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders offer real-life examples of the different kinds of stories that each and every refugee has to tell.

Twenty-two-year-old boxer Farid Walizadeh is originally from Afghanistan, having left the country at age seven after being separated from his family. He learned to box at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Centre in Istanbul and found refuge in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2012, where he still lives.

“When I was nine years old, I was in a prison for travelling in an illegal way to Europe – and life was way harder,” he told Olympics.com. “But even then, as a child, I was trying to see the positive sides of that. I was drawing and painting to try to pass the time, because with every darkness there’s a light. Every day the night comes, but the next day the light will come back.”

Khaoula, who arrived in Switzerland from the Middle East in 2014, is a young mother who made the transition from her initial passion sport of karate to shooting, with the help of three-time men’s Olympic air rifle champion Niccolo Campriani.

“She sees hope; she’s one of the very few who sees it and believes it,” Campriani said.

A typical day for Khaoula consists of: “I prepare my son [for nursery] first. Then I go for half a day to school; luckily the school is quite flexible. Sometimes I have some internships and I am working in administration half the day. The other 50 per cent [of the day], I am training. Then I pick up my son, play with him, give him his dinner and get him ready to go to bed. After that, I either do some homework for school or some additional exercises for shooting. It’s a lot, but I try to stay very positive and carry on.”

Originally from South Sudan, Chajen Dang Yien is a 800m runner who spent years away from her family in a Kenyan refugee camp. She would eventually like to work in journalism as well as do advocacy work for peace through sport.

Only 19, Yien was motivated by the IOC Refugee Olympic Team she saw competing at Rio 2016.

“I saw them on TV and thought that they showed the world a lot,” Chajen said. “They showed that refugees can do anything. They can make an impact. They showed that if you try something out you can succeed, that nothing can stop you.”

Refugee athletes - giving back

While active participation in sport and community is something refugees strive for, too, there are many examples of refugees giving back in a variety of ways – using what they have to make those around them even better.

A swimmer on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team Rio 2016, Yusra Mardini now resides and trains in Berlin, where she originated and hosted the Yusra Mardini Swim Camp, in which 30 refugee kids – many who were scared of the water – spent time in learning in the pool for two weeks.

“The idea was to offer a low-threshold project to bring these kids in touch with sport,” she said. “Swimming is an important skill in society, so I hoped I could help the kids to learn it – and maybe some of them found their new passion, like swimming is for me.”

Other examples include Farid Walizdeh, a 22-year-old boxer originally from Afghanistan and now training in Portugal. He spoke to a group of young boys who had arrived in Portugal about the adversity they had faced and how they can still pursue their dreams.

And wrestler Amir Al-Awad, who is based in Alexandria, Egypt, runs his own academy, the Syrian Sports Academy, which helps the disparate refugee community with classes in kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, gymnastics, self-defence, Zumba, and wrestling.

See more stories like these:

Sanda Aldass

Ali Noghandoost

Yiech Pur Biel