For the first time ever, refugees will make up an entire team at the Olympic Games.

When their small inflatable raft began taking on water, sisters Sarah and Ysra Mardini knew they'd have to jump overboard.

It was their second attempt to travel by sea from Turkey to Greece. The Turkish Coast Guard turned their first boat around. This time, they boarded a dinghy, pushed to its limits with 20 other Syrian refugees and all of their possessions.


A dinghy similar to the one the Mardini sisters boarded in Turkey to cross the Aegean Sea. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

Strong swimmers, Sarah and Ysra knew they could make it to land if they had to, so they jumped out of the boat, giving the remaining passengers on board a shot at survival.

For three hours, they held tight to the dinghy's ropes as it made its way toward the Greek Island of Lesbos. After arriving, they traveled on land to Austria, then to Germany where they're currently seeking asylum. Oh, and training for the Olympics.

Sarah and Ysra are two of the many refugees training for the summer games in Rio de Janeiro—the first time refugees will have the chance to compete together.

Last fall, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced that the IOC had begun the process of identifying athletes living in forced displacement with potential to qualify for the Olympic Games. Many will receive scholarships and other support to assist in their training. And this summer, a team of refugee-athletes will compete under the Olympic flag in the Olympic Games in Rio.

IOC President Thomas Bach plays soccer with refugees at the Open Reception Centre in Athens. Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images.

It's not the first time the IOC has stepped in to support athletes without home nations or Olympic committees.

Athletes from South Sudan and East Timor competed under the flag in 2012 and 2000 respectively. And due to UN sanctions, competitors from a then-splintered Yugoslavia competed in a similar manner in 1992.

However, this is the first time refugee-athletes from multiple nations will compete together under the Olympic Flag.

Independent Olympic Participant Guor Marial from South Sudan at the London Games in 2012. Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP/GettyImages.

Athletes from around the world hope to compete for a spot on the small team.

Bach expects five to 10 refugee-athletes will qualify for the games.


Russian Olympic medalists hold the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images.

Meet a few of the few athletes hoping to make the cut:

Sarah and Ysra Madrini — swimming, from Syria

Sarah, 20, and Ysra, 17, were competitive swimmers back in Syria, but the conflict dashed their hopes.

Shortly after arriving in Berlin, a local charity put the sisters in touch with a swimming club and the young women are back in training under the guidance of a coach.


Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika — judo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

During the 2013 Judo World Championships in Rio De Janeiro, Misenga and Mabika put everything on the line and made a risky bid for asylum. They didn't speak Portuguese and had no knowledge of asylum laws, but they knew this was their only chance to flee cruel national coaches and a country locked in a brutal conflict that left more than 5 million people dead.

"I’ve seen too much war, too much death," Misenga told The Guardian. "I do not want to get into that. I want to stay clean so I can do my sport."

Focusing on judo and the upcoming games helps these athletes cope with the challenge of starting over in an unfamiliar and unforgiving place. The duo live in poverty, Misenga trains with sneakers he found in the trash. Mabika travels two-and-a-half hours each way to training sessions. But they won't give up, not when they're this close.

"If we compete in the Olympics, our lives could change," Mabika said.

Yolande Mabika (second from left) and Popole Misenga (right). Image via The Guardian/YouTube.

William Kopati — track and field, from Central African Republic

William Kopati, 22, was an accomplished long jumper and high jumper in the Central African Republic. But when militants attacked his home in 2013, Kopati was forced to flee. He now resides at the Mole Refugee Camp. Since the conflict in CAR began in 2013, the camp has welcomed more than 20,000 refugees, a small fraction of the 800,000 who've been displaced by rebel groups.

Though Kopati has shelter and a safe place to sleep, he’s without the equipment and training facilities he needs to pursue his dream. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.

"My first dream is to continue with athletics," Kopati told CNN. "I love it so much, but I had to abandon it because of the situation in my country."

William Kopati is a refugee athlete. The 22-year-old is a high jumper and long jumper. He was the Central African Republic’s national champion in 2009. But then the war came, and he was forced to flee in late March 2013, when militants attacked the house where he was living. Read more: http://cnn.it/1WKSpFw (Photo: UNHCR/Brian Sokol/RF1CT29) #refugees#highjump #longjump#centralafricanrepublic
A photo posted by CNN Africa (@cnnafrica) on

Displacement is at an all-time high, and diversions like sports can do a world of good.

By the end of 2014, nearly 60 million people were forcibly displaced and sought refuge elsewhere, up from 37.5 million people in 2005. While sports may not bring an end to the strife and conflicts waged the world over, for athletes and spectators, it can provide a welcome diversion from the stress and unease that comes with crises.

"Sport can heal many wounds, " IOC Honorary President Jacques Rogge said. "Sport can bring them hope, can help to forge their ideas and to integrate in society. Ultimately it brings them hope and dreams. Sport is not the solution but it can make a great contribution.

Syrian refugees play soccer in the Al-Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan. Photo by Jordan Pix/Getty Images.

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

Keep Reading Show less

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."