First-ever Olympic team of refugees competes in Rio

Last Updated Aug 5, 2016 7:51 PM EDT

For the first time in Olympic history, a team of refugees will be competing in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. Its official name: the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected the 10 athletes from more than 40 candidates based on sporting skill, verified refugee status, and personal background.

The teammates originally hail from four of the world's most troubled hotspots: Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Democratic Republic of Congo. They were officially announced by the IOC's Executive Board in June.

In Friday's opening ceremony, they will march together under the Olympic flag.

"This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society," said IOC President Thomas Bach.

According to the United Nations, last year more than 65 million people were displaced from their homes around the world because of persecution, war, violence and human rights violations. Among those, 21 million are considered refugees. The largest group -- nearly 5 million people -- fled the war in Syria.

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Yusra Mardini from Syria poses during a training session in Berlin, Germany.

AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Yusra Mardini is a Syrian swimmer on the Refugee Olympic Team. The 18-year-old fled Damascus with her sister last year to make the dangerous journey to Europe. They ended up on a small dinghy and she had to swim in the Mediterranean Sea to help steer their way toward the Greek island of Lesbos.

"It was, like, quite hard just to think that you're a swimmer and in the end you're going to end up dying in the water," Mardini said in a June interview with the IOC.

Mardini and her sister ended up making it to Lesbos and she's currently based in Germany.

Her story of survival, like those of her teammates, is not just a story of struggle but also one of hope. These young athletes have overcome incredible odds to make their mark on history.

As Bach put it, "These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit."

On Friday, as the opening ceremony got underway, President Obama sent a message of support via Twitter. After first cheering on Team USA, he added: "Tonight, the first-ever #TeamRefugees will also stand before the world and prove that you can succeed no matter where you're from."

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Olympic refugee team swimmers Yusra Mardini (L) and Rami Anis pose for a photo in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue on July 30, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Buda Mendes, Getty Images

Here are the Refugee Olympic Team athletes competing at the Rio Summer Games:

  • Rami Anis - Swimming
    • Country of origin - Syria; host National Olympic Committee (NOC) - Belgium
  • Yiech Pur Biel - Athletics, 800m
    • Country of origin - South Sudan; host NOC - Kenya
  • James Nyang Chiengjiek - Athletics, 400m
    • Country of origin - South Sudan; host NOC - Kenya
  • Yonas Kinde - Athletics, marathon
    • Country of origin - Ethiopia; host NOC - Luxembourg
  • Angelina Nada Lohalith - Athletics, 1500m
    • Country of origin - South Sudan; host NOC - Kenya
  • Rose Nathike Lokonyen - Athletics, 800m
    • Country of origin - South Sudan; host NOC - Kenya
  • Paulo Amotun Lokoro - Athletics, 1500m
    • Country of origin - South Sudan; host NOC - Kenya
  • Yolande Bukasa Mabika - Judo, -70kg
    • Country of origin - Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC - Brazil
  • Yusra Mardini - Swimming
    • Country of origin - Syria; host NOC - Germany
  • Popole Misenga - Judo, -90kg
    • Country of origin - Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC - Brazil
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Members of the Olympic Refugee Team pose for a group photograph at a press conference on July 31, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Ker Robertson, Getty Images