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Live your passion

Popole Misenga a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judo athlete

A new team is competing in the Rio Olympic games that begin in early August 2016. The team does not represent a new country. They are athletes who have been forced to leave their own country.

Get ready for what is likely to be a high media focus on the Refugee Olympic Team over the summer. Use the activities to meet the competitors, hear their stories and discover what matters to them.

Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Discuss identity and the different ways people might choose to describe themselves. 
  • Identify where the athletes competing as part of the refugee team have come from and some of reasons that have forced them to leave behind their home countries.
  • Describe the qualities they think are meant by the phrase “mentally in good shape”, for athletes and for others.

Photo activity

Who would you rather talk to? A refugee who has fled a war zone or an athlete competing in this summer’s Olympic games in Rio? Whose experiences sound more interesting to you?

Ask the question and invite young people’s responses. Steer the conversation until someone points out that these are not exclusive categories. A refugee can also be an Olympic athlete. It is not easy, but certainly possible.

Show the photograph.

Popole Misenga a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judo athlete

The man pictured, Popole Misenga, is both a refugee and an athlete. He will compete in the Rio Olympics as a Judoka.

Popole is originally from Bukavu, an area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo badly affected by armed conflict from 1998 to 2003. He was a professional Judoka in the DRC, but sought asylum in Brazil during the World Judo Championships in 2013.

Talk about identity and self-image.

  • Do you think Popole thinks of himself first as an athlete or as a refugee?
  • Which identity might be on his mind more of the time?
  • Which identity might determine what he does on a daily basis?

Invite young people to hold a discussion looking at different perspectives.

Discuss which nation Popole Misenga will be representing at the Olympics. He is not competing for his place of origin, DRC, or his new country Brazil. Instead he is part of a new team made up of ten refugees from different parts of the world. 


The Refugee Olympic team

The Refugee Olympic Athletes team will compete as a group, just as other nations do. The refugee team will also parade as a group in the opening ceremony at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August 2016. Discuss the likely atmosphere. Do young people remember the opening of the London games in 2012?

For many people, athletes and spectators, it is a very moving event as proud athletes march together, celebrating their achievement in competing. Imagine the emotion in the team as people of different nations walk together, united because they have been separated from their homes for reasons such as conflict or fear of persecution.

Might it change the way that some people think about refugees? Explain why.

Why do young people think that a new team has been formed based on people’s status as refugees? 

Ask someone to read out a statement on the team by the International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach:

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium.

This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.

It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.

These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Invite young people’s responses to those words. Who feels inspired by the “talent, skills and strength of the human spirit”? 

What talents, skills or strengths do young people think they have that they might be able to share with others?


Learn more about the team

Here is a list of the ten competitors, their sports, their country of origin and their host country.



Country of origin

Host country

Rami Anis




Yiech Pur Biel

Athletics 800m

South Sudan


James Nyang Chiengjiek

Athletics 400m

South Sudan


Yonas Kinde

Athletics marathon



Anjelina Nada Lohalith

Athletics 1500m

South Sudan


Rose Nathike Lokonyen

Athletics 800m

South Sudan


Paulo Amotun Lokoro

Athletics 1500m

South Sudan


Yolande Bukasa Mabika


Democratic Republic of the Congo


Yusra Mardini




Popole Misenga


Democratic Republic of the Congo


Explore with some questions. You may need a map, or an online distance calculator:

  • How many different countries do the athletes in the refugee team come from?
  • How many different countries have they moved to? Are the host countries generally close by, or far away from their countries of origin
  • How might the members of the team feel?  Think about them being away from their country of origin, living in another country about to compete in one of the world’s top sporting competitions. 

Matching exercise

What do young people know about the countries the athletes have left? Use this matching exercise, linking the country with the description.

1. Syria

2. South Sudan

3. Ethiopia

4. Democratic Republic of the Congo


a) a country in central Africa, the largest in the sub-Saharan region, with its capital Kinshasa, it is rich in natural resources but has seen conflicts over recent decades that have led to millions of deaths.

b) a middle-eastern country with a conflict, now in its fifth year, which has seen millions of people leave their homes and is regarded as one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world.

c) a country in north east Africa, created in  2011 with its capital Juba, it is currently experiencing conflict, has many separated families and has received food and humanitarian aid by airdrops in remote areas.

d) a country in the horn of Africa still affected by a conflict with neighbouring Somalia which lasted several decades until 2009.


Solution: 1b, 2c. 3d, 4a

Are young people surprised by the answers?  Based on this information what questions would they like to ask the athletes? 


Hear from the athletes

Look at the following quotations from athletes:

  •  Rami Anis: “The swimming pool is my home.”
  •  Yolande Mabika: “Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart.”
  •  Yusra Mardini: “I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days.”
  •  Yiech Pur Biel: “I can show to my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life.”
  • Popole Misenga: “Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment.”
  •  James Nyang Chiengjiek: “Then we were sharing. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.”

Choose one of the quotations that strikes you. What insight does it give into life of an athlete, a refugee, or into coping with life generally?

Can young people think of one of their talents, what does it mean to them or give them in their life?  They might like to think of music, art, sport, drama, being good at a certain school subject, or being a good listener or friend.


Meet Yusra

Look deeper into the experiences of one athlete, with the following video.


Yusra Mardini fled Syria age 17.

Yusra will compete in Rio 2016 with the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra: The Refugee Team is athletes who run away from their homelands because they actually lose it. And they want to continue as athletes but they didn’t have the materials, they didn’t really have the support. I’m on the committee now that is supporting this team.

Yusra is training at a swimming club in Berlin.

Yusra: Actually when I arrived they were all speaking German and I was like, side girl, you know [gestures indicating exclusion]. Actually I’m speaking English and there’s a lot of them know a little bit of English. And sometimes I tried to speak German which is not working [laughs] but I’m still trying. And yes, really we have a connection. I can speak two words in German with five words in English—they will understand me.

Now I have ten trainings in the water and five dry land and I do two trainings with a group dry land and three alone. Actually sometimes I have to wake up at five to have a training, extra training, but we are like moving really fast and this is good.

Sven Spannekrebs, swimming coach: She’s really good. She’s mentally really good. She’s in a high-performance level. I think talent is just a small part. It could make the way easier but it’s more important to be mentally in a good shape and to understand what you want to do and what you want to achieve. In the pool she has to get better in the aerobic foundation and the power foundation we have to work for. The technical foundation is really good, we just have to stabilise it. And outside the pool she just has to be like she is.

Yusra: I think anything is possible for me because we are working hard we know what is our plan and we know what we miss and what is not here. It’s not like my country because my country didn’t have this, like, can’t offer all that. But now here they are offering a lot of things and they can like support you the right way and yeah, I think I can do whatever I want to do. You are an athlete, you are not thinking if you are Syrian or from London or from Germany. You will just think about your race. And you have your lane, your swimming cap, your swimming glasses…that’s it.

Invite reactions.


Live your passion

Yusra’s coach says talent is just a small part of swimming success: “It’s more important to be mentally in a good shape”.

Sports people often use this kind of phrase.  Discuss what it means to be mentally in good shape. What words would young people use to describe it?

The following list might provoke discussion. There are nine, so it could be used as a diamond ranking exercise. Young people could also add their own.

What order of importance would young people give to these qualities? What about for an athlete? Or a refugee? For anyone coping with everyday life?

  • Calm
  • Focused
  • Ambitious
  • Relaxed
  • Positive
  • Flexible
  • Happy
  • Friendly
  • Realistic

Yusra talks of originally feeling excluded, then communicating with others through English and a few words of German. How might you have made her feel welcome? How many words of welcome or friendly support do you know in different languages? What would you like to learn?

Yusra says:

“I think I can do whatever I want to do. You are an athlete, you are not thinking if you are Syrian or from London or from Germany. You will just think about your race. And you have your lane, your swimming cap, your swimming glasses…that’s it.”

Invite young people to think of times when they themselves have become immersed in an activity and lost conscious awareness of anything but the task.

Psychologists and sports experts call this the “flow”, or being “in the zone”. It can happen elsewhere too - even in the classroom. Ask how easy young people find it to get into this flow state. What can make it more likely to occur?

Rio 2016's motto is “Live your passion”, in Portuguese: “Viva sua paixão”. Discuss the motto.

If you were to design a poster or a video to promote the motto, what would it have in it? Can you create it?


Concluding thoughts

Should the refugee team be a regular participant at future Olympic games? Reaction from one of the competitors helps put the question in perspective. Rami Anis says:

“I hope that at Tokyo 2020 there will be no refugee team as I hope for all wars to end and so all athletes will be able to compete in the name of their country.”

What do young people think about this statement? Consider the complexity of emotions of those who have been forced to seek refuge in other countries not knowing if they will ever be able to return to their home. What might they have left behind? How might they feel now? What might they hope for the future?



This resource was written by PJ White of Alt62 and published in July 2016.