RIO DE JANEIRO — Growing up as an orphan in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Popole Misenga never imagined he would be competing in the Olympic Games in his adopted city of Rio de Janeiro, much less for a new refugee team.
But on Aug. 5, the 24-year-old judo fighter will march alongside nine other refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and his native DRC at the opening ceremony. Then he will compete with them under the Olympic flag.
“I never expected this,” he told Reuters at the gym in a poor neighborhood of Rio where he trains. “In Congo, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of war, a lot of confusion … I decided to stay in Brazil to find a better life.”
Misenga came to Brazil in 2013 for a judo championship. The trip was an opportunity to leave his home country, where decades of war have cost millions of lives. His own mother died when he was 8 years old.
Along with compatriot Yolanda Mabika, who will also compete for the Olympic refugee team in judo, Misenga fled the hotel where they were staying. Knowing no one and speaking no Portuguese, he spent some time living on the streets before finding shelter among a small community of Congolese in a favela, or slum, in northern Rio.
After surviving on help from neighbors and occasional jobs, Misenga managed to register himself as a refugee and resumed practicing judo, a sport he had learned as part of a program for orphans in the Congo.
Now he has a Brazilian wife, Fabiana, and a young son. He still struggles a bit with Portuguese but says Brazil is now home.
“I have found a good life here, and I’m happy to stay,” he said, while admitting he still dreams sometimes of returning to DRC one day.
For International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Misenga and his teammates will raise awareness of the scope of the refugee crisis. The United Nations estimates there are more than 60 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with a third considered refugees.
“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,” Bach said.