This team of refugees reminds us of exactly what the Olympics is about — unity.

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, ten athletes came together to compete under a single flag.

They hailed from South Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, and Syria, and each one had fled their home country under dire circumstances.

They marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Olympic flag, coming out just before the host country of Brazil’s team. Together, they were the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), bringing together people who had been forced from their countries for safety reasons, and giving them a group they could represent and compete for.


These athletes gave a face to the growing refugee crisis and fulfilled lifelong dreams they thought had become impossible. They were “a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide,” according to a press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A mural of the ROT athletes. Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

They also were a reminder that sports — and the Olympics themselves — are about much more than medals.

Because the Olympics have always been divided by country, this left refugees with nowhere to compete and nowhere to belong at the Games.

But in recognizing the existence of these athletes, the IOC also recognized the complexities that exist beyond the sports themselves. Because, try as some people might, there's no way to fully separate sports and politics; they are, and always will be, intertwined.

The world’s refugee crisis, which is still ongoing two years after the Rio games, is the worst it’s been since World War II, when some 60 million Europeans became refugees. It was during that time that the concept of a “refugee" became formally recognized by the United Nations — though they had, of course, always existed.

History is repeating itself in other ways, too. Countries, like the United States and Hungary, are refusing to admit refugees, citing the fact that they could pose a security threat. In 1939, the U.S. turned away a group of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

But by bringing their stories to the forefront, the IOC highlighted the challenges — and triumphs — of current-day refugees.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

For example, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini swam for her life just less than a year after she swam for Olympic glory. In 2015, Mardini and her eldest sister, Sarah, fled their destroyed home in Damascus to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

It was a dangerous trip and their overcrowded boat suffered engine failure. Mardini, Sarah, and two others jumped into the water and pulled the boat to safety on the Greek Island of Lesbos.

"We were the only four who knew how to swim," Mardini said, according to Olympic.org. "I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that."

The 19-year-old said her message to others at the Games was to “just never give up.” A year after the Games, Mardini was one of People magazine’s “25 women changing the world,” had become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was working on a memoir which was going to be a film, and training for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

And Mardini wasn't the only athlete with a harrowing story to tell and obstacles to overcome.

Thirteen years after she ran for her life in Chukudum, South Sudan, Rose Nathike Lokonyen ran the 800m in Rio — and served as the flagbearer for the ROT. She finished seventh in her heat, and, a year later, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland. She also spoke to Pope Francis in Sweden.

And she wasn’t the only member of the ROT to meet with the Pope. Fellow South Sudan refugee Paulo Amotun Lokoro, who competed in the 1500m, went to the Vatican. "The first day I arrived they treated me like a big boss, and I am not a boss!” he told CNN. “People liked me a lot."

The stories of these athletes prove that sports can accomplish more than just physical feats.

They can provide a sense of belonging and camaraderie and bring awareness to larger issues that are facing athletes as well as average individuals around the world.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

The athletes of the ROT made history when they competed in the Olympic Games, and many of them are continuing that work today by speaking out and advocating for change.

As we celebrate the 2018 Olympic games, let's honor the athletes that came before, shaping our world for the better.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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