Two years and a half ago they arrived in Rio de Janeiro from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to compete in the Judo World Championship and they never left.

Today Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga, refugee athletes, thanks to a former Olympic trainer and a Brazilian judo superstar, they’re hoping to realize their Olympic dream, walking on August 5th in the Maracana stadium behind the Olympic flag.

For the first time in the Olympic history, the International Olympic Committee has decided to create a team of refugee athletes that will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.

The two Congolese athletes are training in one of Rio’s most dangerous favela, Cidade de Deus, with Gerardo Bernardes, a four-time Olympic trainer, and coach of two of the most famous Brazilian judoka, Bronze medal Flavio Canto and world Champion Rafaela Silva.

Born in a small village in Congo, in 1997, when they were 9 and 7 years old Yolande and Popole were taken away from their families and ended up living in a refugee camp in Kinshasa.

Here they started to train in judo and in few years they enter the national team, where they were taught that winning is everything and that you should win at any cost. And if you didn’t win you ended up in prison.

In 2013 they came to Rio de Janeiro for the Judo World Championship and here their coach abandoned them without documents and money. For about eight months they survived thanks to the Congolese community in a very remote and dangerous favela in the north part of the city. Then judo came to rescue them. Caritas, the volunteers’ organization, put them in contact with Gerardo Bernardes who in 2000 had opened in Cidade de Deus, with judo superstar’s Flavio Canto, Instituto Reaçao, a NGO who’s aim is to help kids of the favelas, through judo practice.

Today Instituto Reaçao has five centers of training in five different favelas where they train 1250 kids.

We met the two judokas and Gerardo Bernardes in Cidade de Deus.

“Do they have a chance to win a medal?” I asked Mr. Bernardes. “They wouldn’t be here training if if I didn’t believe so” he replied.

Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga ride a bus for two hours and a half every day to go to practice. The Instituo Reaçao pay for their rent, their food, their bus tickets and recently it also managed to send them back to school.

About a month ago the Brasilian Olympic committee has decided to sponsor their training with the judo Brazilian team and to pay for their travel expenses to competitions in preparation for the Olympic Games.

This, according to Mr. Bernardes, means that in June, when the International Olympic Committee will announce the refugees team, Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika’s names will be on that list.

text by Manuela Parrino

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