When Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika requested asylum in Brazil three years ago, their prospects seemed bleak: they were homeless, starving and completely broke.
Now, the two Congolese athletes have been given a chance to fight on the global stage after being selected for the first refugee team to compete in the Olympics.
“This shows that the Olympic committee sees us, refugees, as human beings,” Misenga told CNN. “My fight in the Olympics will be for all refugees, to give them faith in their dreams.”
A dream that seemed like a distant shot when he and Mabika first came to Rio to compete in the World Judo Championship in 2013. Upon arrival, they say their coach disappeared for days with their money and documents.
“We didn’t eat for at least two days, we were very hungry,” Mabika recalled. “At one point I just started looking for other Africans, I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Mabika and Misenga decided to stay in Brazil and request asylum. They had already fled from home before, when they escaped their rural towns for capital Kinshasa during the 5-year-conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Misenga says his mother was murdered and Mabika was separated from her family in 1998. Neither of them knows if they have any living relatives back home.
In Brazil, the transition was difficult. They were in a foreign country where they knew no one else and didn’t speak the language. They finally settled in two separate working class neighborhoods in Rio, which are heavily populated by Angolans and other African immigrants.
Despite being safer than the villages they left behind, Misenga’s says gunfire still rings through his drug gang-controlled neighborhood.
Misenga recalls sleeping on the floor of a local beauty salon when he first arrived, which provided temporary shelter. Both of them had to put training on hold and take on odd jobs in order to make ends meet.
Finding their way back to training
In 2015, Brazilian judo champ Flavio Canto recruited Misenga and Mabika to train with his NGO Instituto Reacao, an organization that uses sport to help disenfranchised youth affected by crime and poverty.
“It’s tough to find refugees living in this vulnerable situation who have the physical condition to compete at an Olympic level,” Canto said. “They are warriors though and showed great potential.”
The Congolese judokas began training with Geraldo Bernardes, a four-time Olympic coach for the Brazilian national team and co-founder of Instituto Reacao.
Bernardes said the two athletes were highly qualified, but overly aggressive at times.
“The minute they would hit the tatami, they would go on the attack,” Bernardes said. “Judo has a very strong philosophy of respect and appreciation towards the contender which we had to instill in them.”
While proper coaching has contributed to softening Misenga’s tough tactics, fatherhood and his marriage to a Brazilian woman may have also helped.
Even though he will be competing for a medal, he’s hoping his Olympic debut in his adopted home will bring him exposure and help reunite him with any family in the Congo that may possibly be alive.
“I want to bring my family here,” Misenga said.
Misenga, Mabika and eight other refugee athletes will make their debut in Maracana stadium on August 5, when they parade with the Olympic flag during the official opening of the Rio 2016 Games.