The Refugee Olympic Team is a good Olympic story. The reasons why it exists aren’t good, and in an ideal world it wouldn’t have to exist, but the fact that it could raise awareness of refugees around the world, their conditions and the help they need should make life better for a lot of people in the long run.
More immediately, the Refugee Olympic Team gives people in refugee camps something to root for and admire. Track and field begins Friday, and five athletes from Kakuma, a refugee camp with a population of roughly 185,000 in Kenya, will be taking part in the events starting with Yiech Pur Biel in the fourth heat of the men’s 800m. When Biel competes, there could be hundreds refugees in Kakuma watching him run.
Refugee camps are wholly miserable places to live — housing is makeshift, access to good health care is poor, refugees don’t eat well, violence can run rampant. The people there would like to go home, but they can’t.
Sports can be a respite for people in refugee communities. I spoke with Claude Marshall, who helped organize the Refugee Olympic Team as the sports coordinator for the United Nations Refugee Agency. He said that, in particular, the example of the refugee team is pivotal for the minds of young people. As of 2013, nearly half of the world’s refugee population was under 18 years old according to the UNHCR.
"Back in our camps we have maybe 10 million kids, all over the world," Marshall said. "We are going to publicize this team in a big way, make the other young people understand that there's a refugee team out there, that they come from the same type of misery that you people are living through, that there's hope, and you see that they've been recognized."
Thanks to FilmAid and the IOC, hundreds are able to see for themselves.