They fled from their home countries. Now, they'll compete in Paris for the Refugee Olympic Team


They compete under the same flag but speak different languages and come from different parts of the world. After fleeing war and persecution at home, 36 athletes from 11 countries will compete in the Paris Games as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

The team was created for the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a symbol of hope and to call attention to the plight of refugees worldwide.

In Paris, the refugee athletes will take the stage at a time of record global migration, with hundreds of millions of people — many of them displaced from their homes — working to reinvent themselves just as these athletes have.

The record migration comes alongside a rise in far-right populism across much of the world, with officials and parties in many countries promising to clamp down on immigration and asylum.

At the Games, athletes will compete in a host country where the anti-immigration far-right party saw a surge of voter support in parliamentary elections, but was beaten back by a coalition of the French left and failed to win a majority.

The refugee athletes will compete in 12 sports, but for many, their journey to Paris is already a victory in itself.

Fernando Dayán Jorge spent his childhood flying past rickety fishing boats and colonial houses in the bay next to his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Since he began practicing there with his father when he was 11, he said it feels as if he’s lived a thousand lifetimes.

The 25-year-old canoeist was a two-time Olympian for Cuba’s national team in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. Then, a gold medalist. A deserter of the Cuban team. A migrant. A maintenance worker. And a refugee.

Now, he continues to rocket along on his narrow red-and-white canoe, this time flying past suburban homes in the canals winding through Cape Coral, Florida.

Kneeling on his boat, his oar slices through the air as his coach chants “very good work, very good work” from a boat next to him.

Jorge’s eyes are fixed ahead, throwing all his force into his third Olympics.

“After having written off the 2024 Paris Olympics, it’s a massive opportunity,” he said. “There are so many Cubans that come to this country and lose this dream of competing once again, simply because they don’t know how to get back to this place.”

Jorge was at the top of his career, having won gold in Tokyo for the 1,000-meter canoe sprint, when he took a daunting step in March 2021. While training in Mexico, Jorge defected, joining a growing number of Cuban athletes in deserting their country amid an ongoing migratory flight.

Some hope to make more money than they can in the communist-run island. Others, like Jorge, say they left because of political differences over how the government treats citizens and athletes.

He left behind his home and crossed into the United States via the Rio Grande, in hopes of a better — if uncertain — life.

Arriving to Florida was, in some ways, like starting from scratch. Granted refugee status in the U.S., Jorge said he would wake up hours before sunrise to train, then work eight hours in a maintenance gig to pay his bills.

He said he watched friends forced to give up everything after migrating, but he fought to continue as a professional athlete.

“I had a hard time getting out of bed every day and keeping my head on straight,” he said. “I had no support whatsoever.”

Becoming one of the first Cubans to compete on the Refugee Olympic Team changed everything for him, he said. Still, he is among those who’ve struggled to cover the costs of competing internationally. He opened a GoFundMe page in June to help pay his way to the Games.

Cuba has protested the inclusion of Jorge and Cuban weightlifter Ramiro Mora on the team, saying they should not be considered refugees.

Today, Jorge’s life in Cuba and his future in Florida seem to blend together in his home. His red, blue and white Cuba jersey sits framed over his doorway, while medals from competitions in the U.S. hang over a statue of the Olympic emblem.

“To the refugees and athletes who’ve been through the same thing, I want to tell them to not give up,” he said. “No matter how dark the days become, the sun is always going to rise.”

Manizha Talash does not fear the Taliban.

“I’m here because I want to reach my dream. Not because I’m scared,” she declared from Spain, where she was granted asylum.

On the outskirts of Madrid, the 21-year-old is training hard for the Games, which for the first time will include breaking, or, as it’s popularly known, breakdancing. Talash prances and swivels on her hands and feet to the beat of hip-hop, swooshing her black and red hair around before striking a pose signaling the end of her performance.

Just months ago, she was working in a hair salon in the town of Huesca. Talash was among hundreds of Afghans brought to Spain aboard military planes following the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021.

Talash first came across breaking at age 17. She saw a social media video of a man spinning on his head and was skeptical — it must have been fake, generated by AI, she thought. But the images were real, and she said she soon became obsessed with the sport, scrolling through video after video on her phone.

“I wanted to do it, I wanted to learn it,” she said.

She found a club in Kabul where a dancer from the videos trained and knocked at the door. “There were 55 boys, and I was the only girl,” she said. “I told myself, why can’t a girl do this?”

Breaking in some ways freed her from the problems facing young women in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t long before Talash was noticed — international news outlets published stories about the young Afghan woman defying cultural and religious norms. That was enough to become a target.

“The Taliban don’t like it when a girl dances,” she said, even though breaking is more than that — it’s a sport.

Her club began receiving threats, Talash said, and one day, when a bomb hit very close, local police asked them to shut down over the dangers.

She trained behind closed doors in her home until the Taliban’s return to power. Despite initial promises that women’s rights wouldn’t be curtailed, women have since been barred from studying and face several restrictions on employment, travel and health.

“Now, girls can’t do anything,” Talash said.

She’s had little time to train while adapting to a foreign country, and at some points, competing in the Games seemed unfathomable.

“But when my friend told me I could join the refugee team, I was so happy,” Talash said. “I can now fly.”

When Mohammad Amin Alsalami arrived in Berlin in October 2015, he was cold, lonely and homesick.

The Syrian refugee had left behind his war-torn hometown of Aleppo, fled to Turkey, crossed the Mediterranean on a rubber boat to Greece, and trekked by foot to Germany. Like millions of other migrants, he was in search of a place where he could build a future without bombs and violence.

Almost a decade later, Alsalami, 29, has been granted asylum, learned German and made new friends. And he’s living his dream of becoming a world-class athlete.

He learned just months ago that he got the green light to participate in the Paris Games.

“That moment was so wow,” he said. “I get to go to the Olympics. I cried so much. It was really cool.”

Alsalami discovered his passion for athletics during physical education in school at age 15. A teacher noticed his talent for long jump and pushed him to participate in local and national competitions in Syria. But when civil war erupted, he could no longer practice. His family — he’s the youngest of nine siblings and comes from a family of tailors — was displaced several times within Syria, then fled to Turkey. Alsalami decided to continue on to Europe on his own.

He credits his passion for athletics with getting him through the initial hardships in his new country.

During the first weeks in Berlin, he looked up different stadiums and gyms on Google maps so he could start practicing long jump again. He remembers walking through the first snow to finally discover one of the city’s big indoor gymnasiums.

“All the other Berlin track and field athletes were training in this hall,” he said. “When I came in and saw how full and how warm it was inside … it was almost like paradise for me.”

On that first day, a man watched him jump, approached him and asked something in German.

“I didn’t understand anything, not in English either,” Alsalami said. “And then I said ‘Hey, I’m Syrian’ on my cellphone, and he said ‘I’m your trainer from now on.’”

He stayed with that first coach for five years, then moved on to a different one — and said he’s eternally grateful to both for their support.

Despite his excitement for the Games, Alsalami admits he’s a bit sad that he can’t represent his home country.

“Syria is home, I miss it every day,” he said. “In the end, that’s my country, that’s where I come from.”

Iman Mahdavi smiles and dishes up Iranian food that he’s cooked himself at his Milan home.

“If my mum could see me now,” he said with a laugh. “She wouldn’t believe it.”

Mahdavi hasn’t seen his mother since October 2020, when the Iranian wrestler fled his home country over fears for his life.

With only the clothes he was wearing, Mahdavi made a harrowing journey by foot from Iran to Turkey, then flew to Italy and applied for asylum.

“I didn’t even really know where I was flying to,” said Mahdavi, 29. “Luckily for me, it was Italy.”

Once he was granted asylum, one of Mahdavi’s first aims was to continue wrestling. His father, once a wrestler himself, had instilled in his son a passion. Mahdavi became a seven-time national junior champion and won more than 50 medals.

Through a friend he connected with on Instagram, Mahdavi was introduced to a gym on the outskirts of Milan.

“As soon as we had him in the gym, in his first training sessions, we immediately saw that he was an extraordinary athlete, that he was a very, very high-level wrestler,” said Giuseppe Gammarota, president of Lotta Club Seggiano. “We immediately started preparing him for competitions.”

The gym has become like family to him — so much so that he calls his coach, Marco Moroni, “Papi.”

Mahdavi said his real father died of a heart attack several years ago after being mistakenly told his son died in a car crash.

It was Moroni who helped Mahdavi find a job, as a nightclub bouncer.

Mahdavi admits the schedule can be tough: He works from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., goes home to sleep, then trains every day. But he has a focus that drives him.

“The Olympics is a dream for any athlete who does any sport,” he said. “I hope to come back from the Olympics with the best colored medal I can get. And I will also be thinking about the next Olympics, hoping I’m still in form.”

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Associated Press journalists Rebecca Blackwell and Daniel Kozin in Cape Coral, Florida, and Iain Sullivan in Madrid contributed to this report.

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More Paris Olympics news: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games



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