Pope praises witness of 10 athletes on Refugee Olympic Team

IMAGE: CNS photo/Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In a personal message addressed to
each of the 10 members of the new Refugee Olympic Team, Pope Francis wished
them success in their events and thanked them for the witness they are giving
the world.

Naming each of the team’s athletes from South Sudan, Syria,
Congo and Ethiopia, Pope Francis said he had read some of the interviews with
team members “so that I could get closer to your lives and your

“I extend my greetings and wish you success at the
Olympic Games in Rio — that your courage and strength find expression through
the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity,” he said in
the message, signed in late July.

The 2016 Summer Games marked the first time a refugee team
officially participated in the Olympics. Team members marched under the Olympic
flag and, in the event a team member wins a medal, the Olympic anthem was to be
played instead of the national anthem of the athlete’s home country.

Pope Francis expressed his hope that through the team
“humanity would understand that peace is possible, that with peace
everything can gained, but with war all can be lost.”

“Your experience serves as testimony and benefits us
all,” the pope told team members.

Yusra Mardini, 18, was the first member of the team to
compete in Rio. The swimmer is ranked 41st among women swimmers competing in
the 100-meter butterfly; Mardini finished first in her initial heat Aug. 6.

Like tens of thousands of Syrians, Mardini fled her war-torn
country through Lebanon and Turkey. She found a space on a rubber dingy to make
her way to Lesbos, Greece, but the motor stalled. She, her sister and another
woman — the only people on the boat who could swim — pushed the boat to

From Greece, Mardini traveled on to Germany, where she was
given official refugee status in March and continued her training as a
competitive swimmer.

Five of the athletes — including Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23,
the team’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony — are South Sudanese refugees
who were living in the huge Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

The national Olympic committees of the refugees’ host
countries, the U.N. Refugee Agency and the International Olympic Committee
chose the team members. The IOC provided the athletes uniforms and is covering
their costs and those of the team’s coaches and staff.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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