Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

When Rwandan International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Felicite Rwemarika called upon March's IOC Session to adopt a recommendation concerning the support of refugees and populations affected by displacement, she was able to speak movingly from personal experience.

In delivering her address to fellow members, Rwemarika described how her family had been forced to flee Rwanda to Burundi during the first Tutsi massacre in 1959. 

She later lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then in Uganda, working as a nurse.  

Rwemarika was not able to return to her homeland until late in 1994, but insisted that sport had given her a vital means of adjusting and improving her life. 

Reflecting upon her experiences as a refugee, Rwemarika told insidethegames: "In 1959 there was a revolution with a series of riots and arson attacks on Tutsi homes in a few days. 

"Violence quickly spread throughout the country.  

"My family had to flee Rwanda to Burundi when I was only one. 

"My parents and three children at the time left our country amid lots of killings. 

"My father, being a physician, was one of the few educated people. He was able to find work and raised us with incredible encouragement that the future could be bright.  

"As I grew up, I did not understand what being a refugee was. I believed living in another country was prestigious, more like a diplomat that lives and travels from country to country.  

Felicite Rwemarika has lived a remarkable life from child refugee to IOC member ©Getty Images
Felicite Rwemarika has lived a remarkable life from child refugee to IOC member ©Getty Images

"But as I grew older, I understood that being a refugee was not a good thing and that there were a lot of rights we did not have. 

"We lived under pressure and constant reminders to go back to our country.  

"Needless to say, we grew up with an inferiority complex that led us to change our names to fit in with the communities where we lived.  

"From Burundi in 1961 we then moved to Congo for many years and finally settled in Uganda where we lived until 1994 when we returned back to Rwanda. 

"In Burundi and Uganda where my family had fled, we weren't accepted or treated as citizens as we were not accessing the basic services and necessities as the citizens of those countries.  

"For the greater part of our lives as refugees, we were at the mercy of the United Nations Refugee Agency. 

"In Uganda, for instance, we had to change names so as to blend in the community and be able to go to school, get healthcare services and also make it possible for my parents to get jobs without being viewed as refugees.  

"This was the situation that my family and all other refugees went through in most countries they had fled to or been born in."

Sport was one of the most influential factors in shaping Rwemarika's life. 

"Among other things I brought back to Rwanda was my love for sport which was passed on to me from my father, who loved playing football and volleyball and introduced me and my 12 siblings to sport and dance," she said. 

"This provided us with a way to connect, to belong, to stay healthy and strong, both physically and mentally. 

"I took up sport as my way to connect based on my father's participation in sport where he used to play.  

"I could see how my dad enjoyed sport as a refugee, it made him confident. Seeing him play sport relieved from us the pain as refugees.  

"Whenever people are doing sport, they have hope for a better life. 

"More still, in Rwanda we are honoured and lucky to have a Government that fully supports new initiatives which include sport and leadership as a way of empowering women through promoting gender equality and equity. 

"This has always encouraged and motivated me to strongly support and encourage women to participate in sport, become self-confident and aim high to engage in leadership positions in sport and other sectors. 

"I have always considered sport to be a universal language which has always brought people together, no matter what their origin, background, religious beliefs or economic status. 

"Sport is one of the best tools and platforms that connects people for a common goal. It can be used to unite and reconcile people.  

A mother carries her child at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali ©Getty Images
A mother carries her child at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali ©Getty Images

"In regard to refugee sport, I strongly believe that sport has an incredible power and it can be so much more than a leisure activity and, in such instances, sport can act as a social tool.  

"Sport in refugee camps can be used as a tool for empowering young people and strengthening communities, it can contribute to protecting refugee adolescents and young adults from abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence.  

"If sports are well aligned in refugee camps, it could be an invaluable contribution, not only to the enjoyment and relief from the stress of life in refugee camps, but also to the protection and personal development of young refugees to scale up and enhance sport programmes, and improve child and adolescent protection for all refugee communities in Rwanda and around the world.  

"As a Board member of the Olympic Refuge Foundation, I am confident that sport initiatives for refugees will bring hope to the refugee athletes who wish to return to training and compete at the Olympic Games. It is also intended as a symbol of hope for all refugees around the world, which will help raise awareness of the magnitude of the crisis. 

"For over 25 years the IOC has partnered with UNHCR to support refugees and displaced people. In 2016, the IOC created the Refugee Olympic Team to send a message of hope and solidarity through sport to millions of displaced people around the world."  

Rwemarika explained that recommendation 11 of Olympic Agenda 2020+5 has a wide range of aims. 

"It involves supporting the Olympic Refuge Foundation to ensure one million forcibly displaced young people have access to safe sport by 2024," she said. 

"It provides ongoing support to refugee athletes of all abilities through Olympic Solidarity scholarships, facilitates refugee athlete participation and allows access to international and national level competitions." 

She added that it also includes selecting and supporting the Refugee Olympic Team to participate at Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024 and the Dakar 2026 Summer Youth Olympic Games.  

Measuring the impact of the Sport Coalition for Refugees, which pledges to improve access for refugees to facilities, sport activities and participation in events and competitions, is another key goal. 

Rwemarika, who joined the IOC in 2018, said the Olympic Refuge Foundation “gives hope to all displaced young people".

She speaks proudly of her rise to sport's most exclusive club and is now determined to work for the betterment of others, with her life a far cry from the days when her family were forced to hop from country to country. 

"I became an IOC member as a result of my work in empowering women through sport," she said.  

"By pioneering women's participation in sport at district and national level, by being one of the founding members of the Rwanda Football Federation Women’s Commission and more still due to my duties and work in sport administration. 

Rwemarika ithe founder, chair and legal representative of AKWOS - the Organization of Kigali Women in Sports - and, since 2013, has been a member of the Rwanda Women and Sports Commission. 

She was a Board member of the international women's organisation Women Win from 2007 to 2011 and an executive and advisor with the Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee from 2013 to 2017. 

In 2017 she was elected as first vice-president of the Rwandan NOC and has recently been serving as its Acting President. 

Felicite Rwemarika has worked hard to increase sporting opportunities for refugees ©Getty Images
Felicite Rwemarika has worked hard to increase sporting opportunities for refugees ©Getty Images

Between 2017 and 2018 she was the President of the Women's Football Commission at the Rwandan Football Federation. 

"In 1997 when I started a non-Governmental organisation called AKWOS, my main objective was to unite Rwandans so they could reconcile and build peace, heal their wounds and recover from the traumatic experiences they had gone through," she said. 

"We managed to use sport to connect communities, men and women, instead of dividing them, and it has yielded significant and evident results across the board. 

"Unity and reconciliation has been greatly accomplished among Rwandans through sport. 

"And women have become visible in sport activities at community, local and national levels and this has empowered them to connect with the world, become self-confident and to participate in leadership positions, specifically in the sports movement. 

"Women who couldn't pursue their education were able to do so as sport had become their source of income and they have managed to graduate." 

Rwemarika said becoming an IOC member had been "a great surprise" to her, adding: "I didn't even dream to be elected to such a high-level position based on my previous experience and the negativity that women can't participate in sports.  

"However, when I got the award, I was so much more motivated to continue my empowerment of women through sports and promote women's sports. 

"I am truly honoured for the opportunity and am working collaboratively to promote the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect." 

Asked what she regards as the hardest part of being a refugee, she responded: "The hardest thing about being a refugee is being labelled 'refugee' before being considered a citizen of a country you fled to.  

"Worse still, you are mostly treated as a second-class citizen who can't access basic services such as education, health and employment, among others, to the extent that you are forced to change your identity so that you and your family are able to be treated as citizens and have full rights and access to services like any other national." 

She believes the opportunities now being afforded to refugees in sport are hugely important. 

The Refugee Olympic Team debuted at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
The Refugee Olympic Team debuted at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

"It shows them there is no discrimination in sports as they are not left behind," she said. "More still, it raises their hopes for the future.  

"With such opportunities they will become CEOs, physicians, sports personalities... 

"These opportunities give them confidence and they are able to think widely." 

At the IOC Session she echoed calls which had been made earlier for a refugee team at Dakar 2026, which is due to be the first Olympic event of any description in Africa. 

"Through the Refugee Olympic Team the Foundation gives hope to all displaced young people that they too can achieve their life's ambitions, Rwemarika said. 

"I am reminded of my childhood dream that even as a refugee I could have a voice and pursue my dreams. 

"I believe there are many more stories like mine that have not been told to the world."