Refugee in Rio: 'I feel like the world sees me'

UNIC Rio / Pedro Andrade

UNIC Rio / Pedro Andrade

I am one lucky person.

Not because I am here in Rio. Not because I have had this fantastic opportunity to watch some of the world’s best athletes. Not because I got to sit on a sun kissed Copacabana beach.

I am lucky because I have grown up with a loving family. I am lucky because I have had a good and free education. I am lucky because I have rights and live in a safe democratic country.

It goes without saying I take all these things for granted. But on a hot afternoon at the Olympic stadium it hit home what it means not to have these privileges.

On Tuesday myself and Tom Ellis were invited to watch a morning of athletics with around 20 refugees who are living in Rio de Janeiro. We sat with families from countries such as Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Syria and Colombia.

They were there at the invitation of the IOC primarily to cheer on the Refugee team who were competing that morning.

It was a genuine privilege to spend time speaking to some of the group who could not hide their delight at experiencing an Olympic games. Alhaji, from Sierra Leone, said this would be an experience that would be remembered for generations in his family.

But there was a deeper meaning to this occasion. This was a chance for some of them to share their stories, to stress the importance of accepting refugees and to denounce the negative tags that are placed on so many people who are forced away from their home countries.

We spoke Mariama Bah, a refugee from the Gambia who was passionate about raising awareness of equal rights for women.

She told us about how she was in an arranged marriage from an early age, falling pregnant at 14 years old. Mariama talked about her wish that she had got the opportunity to finish her education, her wish that women would no longer be treated as mere child bearing commodities.

At one point she broke down in tears as she talked about her dream to help other women like her escape similar situations and to live their lives as independent women who have rights and ownership over their futures.

It was moving to listen to her story. It also encapsulated a lot about what the Olympics is about. Inclusion, celebrating diversity and giving people a platform in front of a worldwide audience.

I will be playing Mariama’s interview to my classes at my school (an all girls school) because it is a story that needs to be shared, for young people to understand how fortunate many of them to live in a country of free speech.

For Mariama, she may never get to go back to her home country again but as she explained to us, her hope is that she can be a strong advocate for the rights of refugees, a beacon of hope in an area of life where too often hope seems a long way away.

By Andy Bloss (article) and Tom Ellis (audio).