The United Nations estimates that there are more refugees around the world now than at any other point in the past 20 years. These refugees come from all walks of life, and many of them were competitive athletes before they left their countries of origin. Now for the first time in Olympic history, there is an official team to represent the global population of displaced people who cannot compete in their homelands because of war, economic collapse, or regional instability. The team consists of 10 athletes from the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria who will be competing alongside the world’s finest athletes from recognized Olympic teams.
One such competitor is Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who now lives in Germany and arrived in Europe aboard a makeshift boat with other migrants. When the boat’s motor failed, leaving them stranded in the Mediterranean at night, Mardini pulled the boat through the water, saving her life as well as the other travelers on board. This week she won her Olympic heat of the 100 meter women’s butterfly, although she did not qualify for the semi-finals. Mardini’s success in Rio highlights the gifts and talents that refugees have to offer the world. Even while they wait for official citizenship of their new countries refugees can still be exceptional and productive members of society.
Closer to home, Ibtihaj Muhammad is a Muslim fencer who will be representing the United States in the Olympics and is the first American to compete while wearing a hijab. She is ranked at World No. 8 and is one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016.
Ibtihaj Muhammad recently made a statement against the recent rise of Islamophobia in the United States, saying “I wish that, not just my life, but the lives of Muslims all over the world were a little bit easier, particularly in the United States. I’m hoping that the rhetoric around the Muslim community will change.” Ibtihaj won her first Olympic bout against Ukrainian Olen Kravatska but lost in the next round against French Cecilia Berder.