What We Can Learn from the Refugee Olympic Team
In 2015, Yusra Mardini crammed into a decaying boat that sailed thousands of miles across the Aegean Sea to seek refuge on the Greek island of Lesbos. One year later, she competed as an Olympic swimmer in the 100-metre butterfly at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games. Yolande Mabika fled her home as a child more than 20 years ago, never to see her family again after rebels attacked her village in eastern Congo. Today, she triumphs as one of the world’s top Olympic Judo fighters.
Both athletes competed for the Refugee Olympic Team. The team was the first in history to not represent a specific country. Instead, it represented a borderless, unified globe – an enlightening message that will resonate with anyone who believes all humans are human. The team didn’t win any medals, but what it symbolised was more important than gold.
Meanwhile, 2,116 reports recently leaked by The Guardian about Australia’s detention camp on Nauru reveal that in our country, refugees – including children – are being repetitively sexually assaulted, beaten and maltreated to the point of self-harm. They remain submerged in infernal concentration camps reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
So while the rest of the world congratulates the Olympic refugee team on their achievements and praises their heroism, we in Australia continue to close our borders to asylum seekers, soliciting what basically constitutes torture in government-run detention facilities right under our noses.
Hatred and maltreatment of immigrants are some of the biggest trends uniting the western world in the 21st century. Brexit’s “Go back to your country” sentiment still stands; Donald Trump and his ruthless rampage against all things foreign (unless wealthy, white or his wife) is alarmingly popular in the USA; an anti-immigration army called the “Soldiers of Odin” is spreading like a virus throughout Europe; and a Bulgarian ex-wrestler continues to casually hunt immigrants along Turkey’s desert border whilst being applauded as “The Heart and Soul of Bulgaria.” But, y’know, go the refugee team!
The team did much more than bring hope to other refugees. They are humanising displaced people through sport in the most esteemed athletic arenas. Instead of being pitied, or seen as a threat and a burden, these refugees have become our heroes. Their appearance in the Olympic games should be a wake-up call to every citizen and politician, especially the Sonia Krugers of the world – treating refugees with suspicion, fear and xenophobia is unwarranted.
The team of refugees is a reminder that unity can permeate groups of diverse and diverging religious backgrounds. It is a reminder that people of heterogeneous ethnicities can not only co-exist, but can work together to achieve more than most people dream of. When assessing Australia’s refugee policies, it must be remembered that we could be disenfranchising people with the potential to be greater than we are. Perhaps western societies are just afraid of such a reality.
I haven’t been barracking for one single nation in the Olympic games. I feel like doing so reinforces perceptions of separation and competition; I prefer to think that we are all in this together. But the refugees that have triumphed against the tyranny of western nationalism and imperialism are perhaps the most inspiring. They’re a team that challenge notions of separateness by representing a unified globe.
I hope the refugee team has sent a message to the world, including the Australian government: set aside your brainwashed racism, swallow your illogical fears and welcome the already-marginalised into your country. Give refugees a chance to be great.