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Presbyterian Mission Agency celebrates Team Refugees at the 2016 Summer Olympics

Church calls team inspirational

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – As thousands of athletes gather in Rio de Janeiro in the coming days for the 2016 Summer Olympics, a lot of attention will be given to a group of 10. For the first time in Olympic history, a team of refugees will be competing.

The International Olympic Committee recently announced the 10 who will take part in the games and Presbyterians working on behalf of refugees worldwide, couldn’t be happier.

“The life of a refugee during these times is scary. They’ve lost their homes, their countries and live in this kind of limbo existence,” said Susan Krehbiel, associate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “What a powerful thing to give refugees an opportunity to be seen as part of the global community, even if they don’t have a home country banner to participate.”

2016_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgThe team includes a marathon runner from Ethiopia, five distance runners from South Sudan, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and two swimmers from Syria.

“This is a very big deal. As people of faith, we understand our connection as one human family,” said Krehbiel. “Until now, this group has not been represented in one of the most unifying events in the world.”

The team will march with the Olympic flag immediately before host nation Brazil during the opening ceremony. It will have its own entourage including five coaches and five team officials. The group will stay in the Olympic Village alongside all of the competing athletes.

Krehbiel says she’s hopeful the team’s participation in the games will be uplifting to refugees who are struggling to find a home and open the hearts of potential hosts.

“This is extremely inspirational for refugees who have felt desperate and forgotten,” she said. “When I visit refugee camps around the world, I often hear people say they didn’t know anyone was thinking about them or knew they existed. I believe these families will be cheering for the team throughout the world.”

Kreihbiel says it’s a powerful reminder to those living in a stable, peaceful environment of the gifts and talents refugees have as human beings. “In addition to Team USA, I hope we acknowledge the refugees in our own celebrations,” she said.

UNICEF, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other partners are building a global fan club to support the team and stand in solidarity with refugees. Ryan Smith, Presbyterian representative to the United Nations commented, “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a long history with the United Nations and its programs. Presbyterians have been at the forefront of advocating for change.” Monroe Allison, whose parents helped launch “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” in 1950, applauds the decision to include a team of refugees at the games.

“My congratulations and a huge thank you goes to all of the refugee athletes, who are so poignantly demonstrating how much marginalized and restricted their lives are,” Allison said. “All people have the right to use their talents, skills and intellect to their highest level. Denying anyone this basic right is a prelude to slavery.”

As the US debate over hosting refugees continues, Krehbiel says dozens of churches are reaching out to offer assistance.

“I’ve heard that in Chicago the number of churches from different denominations offering to be hosts has quadrupled in the last year,” she said. “However, from a national standpoint, we still have a long way to go. There are still a lot of people who are hesitant to be welcoming.”

For more information about the refugees, click here.

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