Subberwal: A world crisis finds its face in Olympic refugee competitors |

Subberwal: A world crisis finds its face in Olympic refugee competitors

Kaeli Subberwal
Ben Trollinger / |

Once every four years, the world is plunged into a maelstrom of patriotism, competitiveness and enthusiasm for every possible kind of race, match, game, jump and routine. The Summer Olympics are a heady time, fueled by the adrenaline of competition, the ache of disappointment and the rush of triumph. One of the most lauded triumphs of Brazil 2016 has been the refugee Olympic team, a group of ten people from around the world who marched under the Olympic flag in the parade of nations.

The star of the team is undoubtedly Yusra Mardini, the eighteen-year-old swimmer from Syria who saved a dinghy full of refugees when the motor cut out between Turkey and Greece. Although she did not progress to the semifinals of the women’s 100m butterfly, she will go down in history as an Olympic hero from the world’s first refugee team, one who has used her Olympian strengths to save lives.

However, this is not as much of a triumph as it may seem. The Olympics games host athletes who represent over 200 nations, and the 10 participants from the Olympic Refugeee team are not among those athletes. These 10 athletes are not representing any country. They have been ripped from their countries by the most brutal of conditions.

By giving the 10 refugees a place in the Olympic pools, on the tracks and on the podiums, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is providing the young athletes a chance to compete in and be recognized for the sport they love. However, having a refugee team also symbolizes a sort of permanence. When an athlete competes in the name of their nation, they do so because they live in that nation, they honor its traditions and they owe it allegiance. What does it say when Mardini swims in the name of her status as a refugee?

The Olympics are meant to symbolize international unity, but the refugee crisis is the latest issue on which the world has not been able to unite. With more and more refugees vying for shelter in nations that are less and less welcoming to them, it seems that while the world is willing to cheer on the refugee team from a safe distance, it is not willing to offer them sanctuary. In 2015, fewer than 1 percent of 20 million refugees had been resettled in another country.

The Washington Post has a page that lists the deeply moving stories and stark photos of eighteen Syrian refugees, not Olympic athletes, who fled their home nation. Baraa Hamid is eighteen, like me. She was shot in the shoulder by a sniper as she tried to flee Aleppo in the back of a pickup truck with her family. She now lives in a poor neighborhood in Turkey but has dreams of returning to Syria someday. “Even though I was shot,” she said, “I would still go back.”

Mardini is eighteen, too. She, too, faced incredible hardship in Syria, and she, too, was forced to flee her country. But, as she says, this hardship made her stronger, and she was able to cross the line that divides “us” from “them.” She swam fast enough to qualify for the Olympics and fast enough to make her way into the Western consciousness. Now she gives interviews — fresh-faced and in new clothes — and swims in front of millions of people who watch her from their glossy screens. Now it’s easy to look at her and think about how brave she is, how wonderful it is that she’s being given the chance to swim on a real Olympic team.

But we have to remember everything that Mardini’s victory represents. She is one of millions of refugees who have suffered immense torment and loss and now are searching for a place to call home until they can return to their own countries. Her story and those of the rest of her team cannot fade away with the Olympic-fueled excitement. Of course immigration and refuge is a difficult issue to tackle, but, right now, it seems as though there is a lack of recognition of the humanity of the people across the world who have been displaced from their homes. The border between “us” and “them” that the refugee team so memorably crossed is not one that should exist. Once we — who are privileged enough to sleep in our own beds at night and live in a nation that has the option of extending a helping hand to others — understand the humanity of the world’s refugees, we can craft a response that is grounded in compassion and not fear.

Kaeli Subberwal graduated from Summit High School in 2015 and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. She is a summer intern at the Summit Daily.

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