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Refugees' achievements stand taller than a podium

Angelina Nadai Lohalith may not get a medal after finishing last in her 1,500-meter qualifying heat, but as a member of the first 10-athlete Refugee Olympic Team, her presence in Rio is just as powerful as a podium. AP Photo/Morry Gash

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Angelina Nadai Lohalith did not qualify for the medal round in the women's 1,500-meter run Saturday night. She did not come anywhere close. She not only finished last in her heat, she ran a time that was 31 seconds slower that the next slowest runner and 47 seconds slower than the winner.

But she was not devastated. She was proud. As well Lohalith should be because she is an inspiration on and off the track. Lohalith, you see, is one of the 10 athletes competing with the Refugee Olympic Team, and just being able to run in these Games is an amazing advance in her life. And perhaps it can similarly be a little advance for her fellow refugees.

"Even though I came in last, I'm happy," Lohalith said. "I was able to compete and able to finish off the race. Next time, I believe that I will be in front of them rather than be at the end. I'm representing refugees from all over the world. I'm becoming their ambassador now, and that made me happy."

James Nyang Chiengjiek likewise finished last in his 400-meter heat, six seconds behind the next runner ahead of him. He also is an athlete from South Sudan on the refugee team. And he, too, was very proud to be running here.

"I think it's a very important moment for all the refuges. Not me alone," Chiengjiek said. "We are not getting the medals we hoped to get, but this is for spreading peace. I thank the IOC for giving us this chance. It is very important we are here today. Also, we have met and gotten to know so many people. I hope when we go back, we will have that experience, and it will help us in the future."

While many people sympathize with refugees and the agonies they endure, some take negative views. They argue that allowing refugees into your country will take jobs from citizens. That they may be terrorists. That they are beneath the rest of us. Lohalith and Chiengjiek hope the performances of the refugees here will help end such views.

"When some people hear 'refugees,' they do not see them as they are," Lohalith said. "They do not see them as human beings. They see them as refugees, something negative. But we can do something better in our life. Like in sport. Refugees can do something for their lives. Wherever they are, they can do something positive."

Lohalith escaped the war in South Sudan to the Kakuma refugee camp back in 2002 while Chiengjiek left just before that to avoid being made into a child soldier. The two each began running while in school, little dreaming that they would one day be running on another continent in the Olympics.

Fortunately, the IOC voted to allow a team of refugees to compete in the Rio Olympics, picking a total of 10. Five (all runners) are from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia. When the refugee team marched in during the opening ceremonies, they received perhaps the most enthusiastic ovation of any team other than host Brazil.

"I think it has been an amazing experience for them because it is something they have never dreamed about happening," said Luiz Fernando Godinho with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "They are very conscious of the role they are playing here at these Games. They know they are not here to win medals, that they are here to support the refugee case.

"We always look at the athletes to be looking for some personal achievement, and they truly are not looking for that. They know their limitations but they know they are here for a cause. They are leaders of tomorrow."

Both Lohalith and Chiengjiek are staying in the athletes village and being treated just like all the other Olympians, which is what refugees hope for in their lives. "They are people like you or me," Godinho said. "If they have the chance they can achieve important things. They are normal people. The only thing they need is a chance to prove themselves and achieve important things."

Lohalith and Chiengjiek are proving themselves and achieving something important. And they hope their performances here will inspire other refugees that they, too, can do what seems impossible. After all, Lopez Lomong was a South Sudanese refugee who wound up running the 1,500 in the 2008 Olympics and also carrying the flag of the United States after becoming an American citizen.

"Start making your mind to think positive," Lohalith said. "And every time you go out, think positively that you will be able to tackle all the challenges that come in your life."