Moving Beyond Hope: The IOC and Team Refugee

11-time Traditional Karate champion Soolmaz Abooali competes for Team USA Karate and is an athlete ambassador for the American Amateur Karate Federation and Shirzanan.


For the first time in Olympic history, the world will witness 10 refugee-athletes competing as Team Refugee in the 2016 Rio Games. Given the extent of the refugee crisis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) aims to send a message of hope to all refugees through the team’s participation in the Olympics. Hope is certainly necessary, particularly in times of conflict, and the utilization of sport in this regard can be most powerful. However, with an estimated 21.3 million refugees in the world, 10 individuals – representing 0.00005% – were selected for the Olympics. This figure is hardly a tangible reason for the refugees to be hopeful of their dire situation. For the message of hope to be most effective, it must be paired with institutional efforts that address basic human needs. The IOC is one such institution that can fill this role.


As a former refugee, I understand firsthand that the existence of hope without the fulfillment of basic needs is only a bleak concept. When my father, mother, and I were forced to leave Iran after the Islamic Revolution, we traveled to several countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan. After intense interview processes, we were eventually granted political asylum by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as a “Landed Immigrant” status in Canada.

In the former countries, we lived in the slums. Shelter and security were scarce; food was almost a luxury. One particular memory was about apples. My father would buy one apple whenever he could and divide it into seven pieces so that I was able to savor one slice a day per week until the next apple. My mother ensured that I could enjoy some semblance of a “normal” childhood – including through music and teaching me to dance and exercise. Moving her body in rhythmic motions characteristic of Middle Eastern dancing, she would dance in circles and I would follow, emulating her every action until we were both dripping with sweat in the Bangladesh heat. Through the years, we became a part of a community composed of other refugees and locals, all with their own stories of hardship and traumas, and somehow survived as a group that shared a common purpose: to live peacefully.

When one family was accepted into a host country (such as Canada or the United States), the rest of us celebrated and grew hopeful that our turn would also arrive one day. And, it usually did. When we landed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, located in central Canada, we were once again faced with the pressing needs for the basics. The fact is that no matter who, what, or where you are, human needs are universal. With twenty dollars in my father’s pocket upon arrival at Winnipeg International Airport, we were sent to an interfaith house supported by the government. We spent two weeks there until we were provided with our own separate housing, funding for food, and language classes. We were given a one year time period to find jobs and sustain ourselves thereafter. Through this kind of institutional support, we had the opportunity to contribute back to society by taking on various employment positions, to live a peaceful life, and to continue our education. My father graduated with a degree in engineering and his first job was in the United States, where we have now resided for the past 20 years.

Hope is absolutely necessary, but let us not forget that hope alone is not enough. Basic human needs, whether or not you were forced to leave your country, is universal and unchanging: shelter, food and water, security, language skills, and employment. Demonstrating empathy and humanity at grassroots and institutional levels are fundamental in crisis situations. Without it, my family and I may not have been able to integrate and eventually contribute successfully to a completely new society than we had previously known.


The creation and promotion of Team Refugee is a good step toward exercising the Olympic values of friendship, respect, and excellence (including the four Paralympic values of determination, inspiration, courage and equality). To further build upon and instill the Olympic values into society in ways that address real challenges of the refugee population, the IOC and Olympic Solidarity (as well as the National Olympic Committees to which 2 million dollars was made available in 2015) should make fulfilling tangible, basic human needs an institutional priority – in terms of policy and funding. More so, efforts should be consistent and with monitoring and evaluation benchmarks in place before funding is distributed.

Tangible needs that should be fulfilled include but are not limited to:

  1. Ensuring access to the basic needs of life which include: clean shelter, water and food, security
  2. Creating partnerships with local private businesses:
    Food industry: provide x amount of food each day to camps in the area
    Medical centers/agencies: provide basic toiletry items and health screenings
    Education entities/consultants: provide for language classes (particularly for youth)
    Sport facilities: provide spaces for free play.
  3. Creating community development spaces where locals and refugees can interact:
    To directly share stories and promote understanding.
    To collectively work toward building an integrated community that serve common goals of each party involved.

It is important to remember that refugees oftentimes held professions in their native country and therefore possess unique sets of knowledge and skills that could be of great use to another society; gathering brain power toward advancement of a common goal is much more beneficial to any country than it is to ostracize it – in this case segregated inside a refugee camp. My father has an engineering background and my mother has one in childcare, and both continue to contribute in these capacities to the U.S. economy. As for me, I am a member of Team USA’s Traditional Karate team and a doctoral candidate in Conflict Analysis and Resolution researching how sport can be used to resolve conflict.

At the end of the day, 0.00005% is scantly better than 0% and we can do better. The IOC can do better.

My heartfelt congratulations go to the members of Team Refugee: 
Rami Anis – Syria; swimming, 
Yiech Pur Biel – South Sudan; athletics 800m, 
James Nyang Chiengjiek -South Sudan; athletics 400m, 
Yonas Kinde – Ethiopia; marathon, 
Anjelina Nada Lohalith – South Sudan; athletics 1500m, 
Rose Nathike Lokonyen – South Sudan; athletics 800m, 
Paulo Amotun – South Sudan; athletics, 1500m, 
Yolande Bukasa Mabika – Democratic Republic of the Congo; judo, -70kg, 
Yusra Mardini – Syria; swimming; and
Popole Misenga – Democratic Republic of the Congo; judo, -90kg.

Show the world what you are made of, because we are all watching.

  • About the Writer: Soolmaz Abooali is a scholar and athlete who uses her platform to be a voice for those who feel they are not heard. As a scholar, Soolmaz applies her expertise in conflict resolution to dissect root causes underpinning social and structural issues in society; a calling that stems from her refugee background. As an athlete, she represents the United States around the world in karate, and conducts presentations on the mind-body-spirit value of traditional martial arts training. Merging these two passions, Soolmaz utilizes sport as a vehicle in peacebuilding and diplomacy initiatives.
    Soolmaz is currently pursuing her PhD at George Mason University. She is also an 11-time US national karate champion and international medalist, serves as athlete ambassador for American Amateur Karate Federation and Shirzanan, and continues to conduct sport for peace initiatives globally. In her spare time, Soolmaz loves to spend time with her family, close friends, eat ice cream, and dance.
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