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.

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As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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