For all the gold medal performances, for all the world records that fell in Rio, one of the best stories was the Refugee Olympic Team. Ten athletes who no longer have a country to call home were invited to participate in the games under the Olympic flag.
Five members of the refugee team were from South Sudan, two each from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, and one from Ethiopia. They competed in athletics, swimming and judo. They lived in the Olympic Village along with all the other competitors.
The invitation meant to raise global consciousness about the plight of the refugee, humanize refugees in the eyes of the world, and sow seeds of peace. Let’s pray all those things result.
As one journalist noted, however, while the world is moved by Team Refugees, it is unmoved by refugees.
Refugees flee their countries because they are making a choice between life and death. They leave home because their homeland has left them homeless. They often are heroic in braving every obstacle to safety.
Yet often they are met with suspicion, if not contempt. While many countries have accepted and welcomed some refugees, and often more than they can easily integrate into their communities, fear of terrorists infiltrating refugee ranks and worries about clashes of religion and culture tend to dominate our responses to the desperate pleas for sanctuary.
The ancient Olympics were self-consciously religious. Athletes competed in the name of various Greek gods and the winners were crowned with wreaths from the garden of Zeus. Winners achieved near divine status in the eyes of the “hoi poloi.” The modern Olympic movement has evolved into a kind of civil religion. There’s an Olympic flag, an anthem and the ritual of lighting the torch. Athletes are accorded celebrity worship and granted enduring admiration.
But what of our actual religious communities?
Most refugees today are Muslims fleeing violence from fellow Muslims. While some Muslim countries like Jordan have done a remarkable job of aiding refugees, too many others have put sectarian differences ahead of humanitarian likeness.
Jews and Christians both know something about exile consciousness. Abraham and Sarah left their homeland and Jews forever thereafter have confessed, “My ancestors were wandering Arameans …” The 40 years of wandering in the wilderness beyond the Jordan after the exodus from Egypt, the modern diaspora from the Promised Land and the flight from pogroms and the Holocaust have hardened a pilgrim identity into the Jewish experience that even the rebirth of Israel as a state has not fully overcome. While Christians in the West most often think of themselves as settled, we too have at the core of our history a sense of being “resident aliens” in the world.
When robust religious communities fail to advocate for refugees, we forget our own history and mute our witness. The well-intended yet unsustainable support of a few refugees by the quasi-religious Olympic movement still leaves multitudes awaiting our actionable compassion. But a gesture can serve as a reminder.