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Refugee fans from many countries assemble to support judokas Yolande Bukasa and Popole Misenga

In a festive and cheerful atmosphere, a group of refugees met this Wednesday (Aug. 10) in the building of Caritas Rio de Janeiro to watch on a large screen Congolese judokas Yolande Bukasa and Popole

In a festive and cheerful atmosphere, a group of refugees met this Wednesday (Aug. 10) in the building of Caritas Rio de Janeiro to watch on a large screen Congolese judokas Yolande Bukasa and Popole Misenga compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Members of the Olympic Refugee Team, Bukasa competed in the women’s -70kg and Misenga in the men’s -90kg contest. They arrived in Brazil to compete in the 2013 World Judo Championship. During the competition, to escape from their country’s suffering, they left the Congolese team, sought refuge in Rio, and were welcomed by Caritas, an agency of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB).

The judokas had to adapt to the new country and to find ways to maintain their fitness. They managed to do it with the support from the Estácio University and the Instituto Reação, a judo school and charity. They began training with Geraldo Bernardes, who was also the coach of judoka Rafaela Silva, gold medal in Rio 2016.

Mother at 14

One of the judokas’ supporters was Mariama Bah, 26, who lives in Nova Iguaçu, Baixada Fluminense. She came from Gambia to Rio two years ago. In Bah’s community, girls were offered in marriage very early. For that reason, she became mother at 14 years old.

Bah said that women are not encouraged to study there. “I wanted to volunteer for my family and for my people in order to educate the largest number of people as possible, because education is a need, not a luxury,” said the refugee.

She is waiting for her daughter, aged 12, to arrive in Rio in September, because she does not want the girl to have the same future she had. “I do not want my daughter to go through what I had to go through. It was not the marriage I had chosen. I was only a child,” said Bah, who is now able to continue her studies and wants to go to the medical school one day. “It is my dream. Let’s see what will happen.”

Refugee judoka Yolande Bukasa lost to Israel’s Linda Bolder. No one wanted Bukasa to be knocked out, but they felt utterly thrilled at watching the Congolese fighting in the Olympics. Popole Misenga fought right after and won against India’s Avtar Singh. The celebration was sung in Lingala, one of the languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Beat him. Beat him, Popole,” translated into Portuguese electrician Elvis Nigangu, 23, who is also a refugee and is currently unemployed, but dreams of studying engineering.

Fight

Mireille Muluila, graduated in international relations, noted that among the refugees, there are many trained professionals. “There are physicians, engineers, players,” said Muluila. “They have not wished to leave their countries, but they were forced to do it to seek for peace, to seek for another life, to escape from war.”

For Muluila, who works in Caritas teaching Portuguese to her fellows, the judokas’ participation defending the Olympic Refugee Team is a source of pride. “It means a lot. It represents our strength, our victory, our arrival in a new place. They arrived with nothing, left their country without knowing anyone. To leave our country and leave everything we built to seek refuge in another country is not a small thing. It is very hard to be away from our family.”

In Brazil for a year and seven months, Agostinio Nzinga got a job in a store selling equipment of the Brazilian soccer club Flamengo. The Congolese said he had heard the name of former soccer player Zico, one of the club’s idols, and then he identified himself with the club’s crowd. Currently he is part of Fla Refugees supporters’ group, with an official banner and uniform.

For Nzinga, it is very heart-warming to watch that the Congolese athletes, because they face a similar situation and were a spotlight in the sport. “To participate in a mega sporting event like this means a lot for us and for Yolande,” said Nzinga, expecting his fellow to resume his sportsman’s career.

The Olympic Refugee Team was formed by an initiative of the International Olympic Committee and was supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), working for over 20 years to encourage sports as a souce of development and well-being for the refugees, especially for children. The team, which marched in the opening ceremony carrying the International Olympic Committee flag, is formed by 10 athletes. Two Syrian swimmers, the Congolese judokas, an Ethiopian marathon runner, and five South Sudanese runners. According to UNHCR, conflict, persecution, and human rights violations forced them to leave their countries of origin, and seek refuge in other countries: Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Luxembourg and Kenya.

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