The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been riddled with conflict and corruption since the 1960s so much so that its people have tried to escape. And two of them are judokas competing in the 2016 Olympics as part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes team. Both Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga were orphaned by the civil war in Congo. Yolande doesn’t exactly remember how she was separated from her parents. What she recalls is that she was running alone when she was picked up and taken by a helicopter to a center for displaced children in Kinshasa, the country’s capital. It was at the center that she learned judo. And she says judo strengthened her heart.
From Congo to Brazil
Despite the honor they were giving to their country by participating in international tournaments, they were still treated harshly by their coaches. They were locked in a cell when they lost and sometimes not given any food nor water for several days. The conditions were simply inhumane. Even at the 2013 World Judo Championship in Rio de Janeiro, they were mistreated too. They were left by themselves at their downtown hotel for three days before the competition without food, money, or passports.
They then decided to flee from their hotels. They didn’t know the place, the people, the language, nor the laws. They just wandered the streets of Brazil until they were picked up by the Catholic charity Caritas who also helped them seek asylum from the government. And, as fate would have it, the Olympics will be held in Brazil 3 years after they sought refuge in this country.
But it hasn’t been a bed of roses for them in Brazil as they experienced discrimination – being passed on for work and even accommodation. Popole is a construction worker while Yolande is unemployed. They both live in the slums of Brazil in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Popole shared that before being drafted for the Refugee Olympic Athletes team, he trained by himself with sneakers found in trash. But they were able to overcome the daily challenges and now train regularly at Instituto Reação under the auspices of Geraldo Bernardes, who has led the Brazilian national team to four Olympics.
For them, being part of the team means they should set a good example, especially to the youth. From two people who have seen the worst yet survived, they have a lot of lessons to impart to the refugees of the world. Popole said, “You don’t stop doing things just because you are a refugee.” And Yolande muses, “You have to keep the hunger in your belly.” And “Do not give up, keep hoping and believing, and have faith in your hearts.”
They might have lost their families in the war. But in judo and the Olympics, they have found family and life again.
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