Watching the Olympics over the past week, I’ve found myself caught between two allegiances—as a newly minted American I’ve been rooting for the stars and stripes while still pulling for my native Australia. But there’s another team that’s also very close to my heart, and that’s #TeamRefugee. Seeking a better life for herself and looking to escape life behind the U.S.S.R.’s repressive Iron Curtain, my mother fled Hungary in 1956 and arrived in Australia by boat – a refugee with only a suitcase and £7 in her pocket. In the ensuing years she labored tirelessly running a café to build a life for her family, and we feel tremendous respect for the incredible work she did to make our lives possible.
Over the years, the Olympics have proven to be a high-profile opportunity for countries to come together and showcase all the best, and at times worst, they have to offer in a profoundly symbolic and inspiring manner. But what happens when a group of athletes challenge the notion of the games themselves by highlighting the global disintegration happening just outside its doors? Specifically, the worst refugee crisis since World War 2, one that’s seen the number of displaced people rise by 75% since the 2012 summer Olympics in London four years ago. A crises fuelled by the ongoing civil war in Syria, along with the continued struggles of countries in Africa. After suffering nightmarish conditions at home, these poor people endure dangerous, arduous journeys only to end up as a largely unwanted class of citizens who are put aside in camps where dignity and opportunity are both non-existent. With no safe home to return to, and no prospect to integrate into another society, they spend months and even years in limbo. Some grow so desperate that they escape from the encampments to search for new opportunities – any opportunity – elsewhere.
What makes #TeamRefugee special is that it ensures that at least a very small handful of displaced people won’t slip through the cracks and be ignored by society at-large. And not only that, these brave Olympians give a real human face to those gravely affected by failed states around the world. A human face that registers all the same emotions as any other athlete—one that reminds us of our shared experience. They are also the faces of refugees that have been given an opportunity to show that they’re more than just victims, criminals or potential terrorists, and in the process they’re able to not only reclaim their own dignity, but a measure of dignity for displaced people everywhere. “We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something,” Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer who also acted as a human motor/rudder after her family’s dinghy broke while fleeing the war-torn country. It’s a powerful, positive example of what happens when refugees are allowed to work and contribute
And yet, an unhappy paradox emerges where people are happy to support a feel-good story from the comfort of their home for a few weeks and then oppose efforts to have refugees re-settled in their country. Quite obviously, it’s a complex issue and there are legitimate concerns when integrating large groups into a native population, but to let these refugees rot in a camp, or hope they’ll move on to another country and become someone else’s problem denies them their humanity, and our own. We have it in us to be the example that lives without fear, the one that carries the Olympic spirit of unity forward across the weeks, months and years ahead. I hope you’ll join me in helping to make a difference. For more information on how you can, please visit: http://unfoundationblog.org/ways-you-can-stand-withrefugees/
Image via Flickr courtesy of user UNHCR at https://flic.kr/p/duLyDB
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