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The Nation of Refugees

One of the highlights of the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics was the arrival of the International Olympic Committee Refugee Team.  For the first time persons who have had to flee their home countries will compete under the banner of the IOC, a transnational team comprised of athletes from Ethiopia, Syria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Their arrival in the stadium at the end of the long parade brought the crowd to its feet, nearly upstaging the entrance of the host Brazilians that followed them.

Every Olympic athlete has a story, of course, but the members of this team stand out.  Yusra Mardini from Damascus witnessed her home destroyed in fighting in 2012.  She and her sister fled Syria to Lebanon, then Turkey.  They were smuggled to Greece in a small boat shared with 18 others.  As the boat took on water, the two sisters jumped in the ocean, swimming over three hours and helping guide the boat safely to shore.  From Greece they went to Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary where authorities kept them confined in a train station.  Eventually they were able to continue on through Austria to Germany where they lived in a refugee camp near Berlin.  Every athlete has a comparable story.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports over 65 million people in the world today who have been forced from their homes.  Of these, over 21 million are refugees who have fled their own country, half of whom are under the age of 18.  There are 10 million stateless people, the truly lost, who have been denied a nationality and lack access to basic rights.  The remaining are internally displaced persons, like the over 5 million Colombians internally displaced by years of civil war who live in sprawling cities constructed of canvas, tin, and wood scraps on the hills at the outskirts of Bogota.  Over 34,000 people are forced from their homes around the world every day.

As inspiring as Yusra’s entrance to the Olympic stadium was last Friday evening along with her nine fellow refugees, there was something profoundly disturbing about it as well, suggesting the establishment of a kind of pseudo-state called “The Nation of Refugees” that will exist perpetually alongside other nations in the world.  But this state is not normal, and it should not be “normalized” in our minds or our policies.  It is not normal because it is geographically dispersed.  It is overwhelmingly impoverished.  Its “citizens” are among the most highly vulnerable people in the world.  It has no coherent identity other than shared stories of terror, deprivation, hostility and the desperation and courage of those who have become its citizens.  It is a “state” with no voice of its own in the world.  Its citizens’ rights are determined by others, granted or rescinded by the will of the strong.  It is a state defined more often by the xenophobia  and violence of others than by the pride of its own citizens. 

That ten courageous athletes should have to enter the Olympic stadium, not with the national teams of their birthplace but under the guise of a pseudo “statehood” in a manufactured “Nation of Refugees,” should shock and sober us.  The citizens of this nation exist because of civil wars and ethnic rivalries and their leaders’ corruption and famine and drought.  But they also exist because of the economic policies of the wealthy nations and the military adventures of the powerful nations.  They exist because they are denied “exit visas” from the “Nation of Refugees” by other nations who either pity them or fear them, but in either case will not welcome them. 

Let the athletes compete.  Of course!  But let’s not normalize the induction of over 34,000 people a day into citizenship in a nation of refugees, stateless, and internally displaced persons.  Instead, let us put ourselves to the urgent task of dismantling this nation.  Jesus said “the poor will always be with you.”  He might as well have said “the refugees will always be with you.”  He should know.  He was a refugee in Egypt according to Matthew.  But these statements were not intended to be an excuse for perpetual indifference.  Rather they were a reminder of enduring responsibility.  In September President Obama and General Secretary Ban Ki Moon will convene Summits on Refugees and Migrants at the UN in New York.  May the IOC Refugee Team and its inherent abnormality inspire their work, prompting a new international effort to deconstruct the “Nation of Refugees,” granting passports to its citizens in the places of their birth or their dreams.

               John H. Thomas

               August 9, 2016

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