Imagine you were born in a region of your country that was to become the theatre of one of Africa’s longest and deadliest conflict in history. Imagine that you must flee and found yourself, a little kid wandering on your own till you were found and taken to an orphanage in the country’s capital. Imagine became passionate about athletics and, in your teens, joined your country’s National team. Would this finally be the beginning of a better life for you?
Today I am inspired by two amazing young people, Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga of Congo. Though the two are unrelated, war merged their life path almost into one, in this strange and unique ways war erases who we are and throws us into an almost standardize life we never knew was going to become ours.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika was born on 8 September 1987 in Bukavu, the city of Dr Denis Mukwege, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Popole Misenga was some five years later, in the same town, on 25 February 1992.
When the war erupted in their native region in 1996, Yolanda was 9 years old and Popole was barely 4 years old. One year within the conflict, Yolanda was separated from her parents and brothers. Yolanda doesn’t remember much of what happen, only that she was found and taken to children’s shelter in the capital Kinshasa.
Popole’s mother was killed around the same time and his brother went missing . The little six years old boy fled to a nearby forest where he wandered for days before he was found. Like Yolanda, Popole was taken to Kinshasa and was raised in the same children’s shelter run by UNICEF.
Life in the shelter was tough for the kids, suddenly away from home and living with strangers, orphans of a war they not understand. Yolanda hoped her family was still alive, but she never got any news from them.
The two found refuge in sports. The shelter was offering classes in judo, and they quickly mastered this martial art that was offering then a great outlet for their pain and grief.
“Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart. I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started with judo to have a better life,” Yolanda later confided.
Their dedication to this demanding sport led them to later be enrolled in the country’s National Judo Team and participate in various competition in the country and abroad.
Life in the national team proved to be far from a fairy tale. The athletes later shared that they suffered a lot of abuse from the hands of their coaches.
“They just wanted us to win medals and, if we failed, we would suffer,” Popole explained.
After what they had suffered with the war, what should have been their path to a better life had turned out to be another type of nightmare.
Their lives were going to unexpectedly change in 2013. They had travelled to Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to compete in the Judo World Championships. However, they never got to participate in the games. When they arrived in Brazil, their coach took their passports and all their money and left them locked in their hotel room.
Not understanding what was happening to them and not really knowing what to do in this foreign country, the two stayed wondering what to do. Yolanda managed to escape and went out to look for help.
It was an out of body experience. Yolanda recalls walking down the streets of Rio, stopping people on the street to ask for help. She would stop black people, hoping they might understand French, only to find they did not understand what she was saying.
Someone finally directed her to a beauty salon run by African immigrants. She went back to get her friend Popole and they slept a few days on the floor of the salon. During the day, the two friends walked on the streets trying to figure out a way out of this untenable situation.
“We were hungry and no one was helping us. I would approach black people like me on the street, speaking French, asking if they were African. I couldn’t understand or speak Portuguese then,” says Yolanda.
One day, they were lucky to meet a refugee from Angola, and he took them to the Bras de Pina, a favela of Rio where many Africans lived, including Congolese.
Yolanda and Popole describe this part of their lives ‘the second time they were refugees’, first when they were displaced in their own country as kids, and now as adults in Brazil. Fortunately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees received their asylum claim and they were officially granted the refugee status in September 2014.
It was a life of small jobs after small jobs to help them get by without burdening the new friends who had taken them in. Yolanda didn’t want to accept that there was no room left for judo or competitions in their lives, that it was just going to be about surviving, day by day.
She asked everyone she met if they knew of a place where they could go and practice the sport that had been their whole life since they were kids. Local media picked up her story and broadcasted the news of what happened to them and their dream to go back to judo.
The response was overwhelming. Yolanda and Popole were introduced to the Insituto Reacão where they were to train the institute’s co-founder and veteran Olympic coach Geraldo Bernardes.
This seems like the perfect happy ending, doesn’t it? Well, no, not quite yet.
Something else was going to happen, an announcement that was going to be made miles away on a different continent but that was going to possibly change the course of their lives.
In October 2015, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, made history when he announced before the UN General Assembly, that a team of 5 to 10 highly-qualified athletes who were refugees were going to be able to compete at the Olympic Games under the IOC banner! 120 years after the first modern Games in Athens, people who could not compete not because they weren’t qualified but because they had to flee persecution in their own country, were now going to be able to participate in the most pristine of all competitions.
Like every other refugee athlete (or athlete refugee) in the world who learned of this, Yolanda and Popole started dreaming the impossible dream of being part of that select few.
Try to imagine how many refugees there are in the world, how many of them are athletes and do the math to figure out their odds.
Yolanda and Popole were less concerned with the odds than the fact that they hadn’t trained for two years. But nothing would stop them now! They trained three times a week at the Instituto Reação in Jacarepaguá – two hours away from their neighbourhood – with members of the Brazilian olympic team.
Though they were professional athletes in Congo, they had to adjust to a different sporting culture and unlearn all the abuse they had been subjected to by their former coaches.
Once again, their dedication paid, big time. On June 3rd 2016, the IOC announced the 10 names of athletes who were to compete in the summer Olympics in Rio.
Both Yolanda and Popole made the cut!! Yolande was to compete in the 70 kg class of women’s judo and while Popole would compete in the 90 kg class of men’s judo. The other eight team members included two swimmers from Syria, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five runners from South Sudan.
On Aug. 5. 2016, five months after the creation of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, our athletes proudly walked in the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Summer Olympics with their fellow athletes under the applause of the public.
“I cannot fight for my country. I will fight for the Olympics. I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world,” Yolanda said.
She also hoped that, her appearance would allow her family – who haven’t been in touch since she moved to Brazil – to reconnect with her.
“If my family see me on television, I can give my number, everything. Because I want one day to talk even with my dad and my brothers.”
Popole was as adamant as Yolanda to participate in this tournament
“I represent everyone!”
Neither Popole nor Yolanda earned a medal in Rio but their lives have changed forever. They know everything is possible when you are ready to grab opportunities coming your way and make the best of any situation.
“When I entered the Olympic arena, I thought nobody would cheer for me, and then I saw all the Brazilians rooting for me. I was very emotional. I felt something different. I am a winner too. I can’t explain how happy I am. I never dreamed about competing in judo again, and I came back in the world’s most famous competition. I will come back to judo after the Olympics. I will train, enter other tournaments, win medals, and fight in another Olympics.”
Though I am ending the story here, it is in no means the end of the journey for these two young people. Who knows where their journey will lead us?