Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini will swim at the Olympics this summer – but last year she had to swim to save her life. The boat on which Yusra and her sister Sarah were riding to escape the war in Syria broke down in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Greece, so they swam to try to reach safety in waters where thousands of refugees have drowned.
Runner James Nyang Chiengjiek, a refugee from war-torn South Sudan, was at risk of being abducted by a Sudanese army and forced to commit violent acts in the war there. He decided to use his athletic skills to run and walk long distances so he could escape to Kenya. Now James, who has trained as a runner in Kenya, will contribute his skills to the Olympics.
Yusra, James, and other refugees who had to leave their home countries behind while fleeing war, crime, or poverty haven't left their Olympic dreams behind. Ten world-class runners, swimmers, and other refugee athletes will compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as part of the specially formed Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) team.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hopes this first-ever refugee Olympic team “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," said IOC President Thomas Bach in a statement.
Normally, athletes represent their home nations in Olympic competitions. But the journey that ROA team members have taken to the Olympics is far from normal. In addition to the rigors of Olympic athletic training -- which demands both physical and mental strength -- these refugees have had to summon strength to deal with life-threatening challenges. They fought for their lives when they escaped. They're grieving for lost homes and loved ones. They face serious challenges trying to establish new lives in their new communities.
God cares deeply about refugees. He was even a refugee himself! When King Herod tried to have young Jesus killed, God incarnate left Israel with Joseph and Mary to find a new place to stay in Egypt. The athletes on the Olympic refugee team can teach us a lot about God. Here are five key lessons we can learn about our Creator from these inspiring individuals:
1. God looks forward to welcoming us to our true home with him.
Since refugees have lost their homes, their predicament reminds us that the homes we live in during our earthly lives are only temporary. We’re just passing through this world. Our true home is in heaven, with God. In Philippians 3:20, the Bible says that “our citizenship is in heaven” and in John 14:2, Jesus describes heaven as a home, saying that “my Father’s house has many rooms” and that he is preparing a place for each believer there.
Members of the ROA team have had to leave their home countries behind, but they each still have a place in God’s plan. God hopes that they (just like us) will accept his invitation to join him in his home – heaven – by placing their trust in him for salvation.
2. God is our Father, and he will provide for us through our worldwide family of believers.
The IOC is acting like an adoptive family for the refugees, providing resources that they need at the Olympics and for several years afterward in their new communities around the world. Refugees have lots of needs – from food and housing, to health care and job training. We all have those same needs, and ultimately they’re met only through God’s gracious generosity. God often provides for our needs through other believers who are in our greater family: the body of Christ.
Like refugees, we may lose blood family members, but we’ll never lose access to God’s loving care expressed through our spiritual family. Ephesians 2:19 tells us that we “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” Just like those who have been adopted into the ROA team, we have been adopted into God’s family. There’s no better place to be when we need something.
3. God leads us through uncertainty to fulfill good purposes.
Refugees remind us of the sobering reality that anyone can experience loss at any time in our fallen world. Although the lives of refugees are filled with crises of uncertainty, we all face uncertain futures, and it’s usually when we’re going through transitions that we’re most aware of it. We all must go through changes in our lives: moving to new communities, starting or leaving jobs, getting married, divorced, or widowed, having children and seeing them leave home, getting sick or injured and recovering, and beginning or ending friendships. Often, we can’t predict what will happen to us. But in the midst of our uncertain circumstances, we can be certain that God will lead us through any situation – no matter how challenging – to accomplish something good.
In Jeremiah 29:11, God famously promises, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” God offers hope and a good future to anyone who relies on him, and no amount of change (not even becoming a refugee!) can stop believers from discovering and fulfilling those good purposes by following where God leads.
4. God empowers us with courage to take worthy risks and reach significant goals.
Each one of the refugees on the Olympic team faced a choice about how to respond when faced with the opportunity to train for the Olympics. There was no guarantee that all the time and energy they poured into their training would lead to a spot for them on the team. They could have chosen not to risk devoting themselves to a dream that may not come true. After all, they had already experienced significant stress and discouragement from the circumstances that led them to flee their countries. Why take another risk? But trying to make the Olympic team was worth it to them, so they each made the courageous decision to pursue their Olympic dreams.
God may not call us to try out for the Olympics – but he will call us to take important risks that will achieve good goals in his kingdom. God assures us in Joshua 1:9 that he will empower us whenever we go where he leads us to go: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
5. God will give us opportunities to use our talents to help others.
If we’re willing to use the talents God has given us, God will make ways for us to do so. Just like the refugees who are using their athletic talents to inspire others through the Olympics, we can each use our own God-given talents to contribute something of value to other people. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us,” Romans 12:6 declares, before urging those with various types of talents to use them fully.
When you’re inspired by seeing ROA team members in action this summer, let that motivate you to put your own talents into action. What do you love doing and can do well? That’s likely one of your God-given talents. Ask God to show you specific needs you can meet simply by using your talents – from teaching to encouraging – among people you know.
Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. But as the refugees in the Olympics this summer show us, incredible strength can come out of vulnerability when God’s love is at work!
Whitney Hopler, who has contributed to Crosswalk.com since 2001, writes about how to pursue wellness in body, mind, and spirit. Learn more by visiting her “Wellness with Whitney” blog or connecting with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus.
Publication date: August 5, 2016