How the Rio Olympics transformed the lives of two Congolese judo refugees

Story highlights

  • Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika were orphaned in the Congolese civil war
  • They absconded while competing at the 2013 World Championships in Rio and are now residents there
  • The pair were part of the 10-person Olympic refugee team at the Rio Games
  • Two years on, their lives have been transformed and they have set their sights on Tokyo 2020

(CNN)She specializes in African braids in the Rio de Janeiro beauty salon where she works.

For Congolese judoka Yolande Mabika, it is a reminder of her life: both past and present.
Mabika made global headlines as one of 10 athletes to compete for the first ever refugee team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
    She first went to Rio for the 2013 World Championships and never left. She has called the city home for five years.
    "The Olympics were a dream come true," she tells CNN. "A black African woman who came from a country that lives under a dictatorship and amid political crisis -- I could never imagine that this day could come to my life. For me, it's marked in history."
    Mabika lost to Israeli competitor Linda Bolder in the opening round of the Rio Games but the result hardly seemed to matter.
    Just being there was a far cry from her horrific beginnings on the streets of Bukavu, where, at the age of 10, she was separated from her mother as they walked to school.
    They haven't seen each other since.
    She wandered the streets alone for days, eventually taken in a military plane to a refugee camp in Kinshasa.

    A new family

    Today, her daily life entails going to the gym in the morning and afternoon, combined with her work in the beauty salon.
    She then heads to Portuguese lessons two evenings a week before an evening training session. She's also coaching four to six-year-olds in the finer points of judo.
    Mabika used to feel alone in the world. That has changed.
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    For one, she now has contact with remaining family members in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the family has widened.
    "I feel alive, as for a long time I was alone, but today I have frequent contact with my friends and family from Africa," she says. "I also have an African family here in Brazil, friends who became mothers, brothers, uncles and cousins.
    "But also, the Instituto Reação [where she trains] I consider my family as well my coach Geraldo, who represents a father to me now."
    It was in 2013 that she escaped from her team base in Rio with another Congolese judoka, Popole Misenga.
    The pair are now indelibly linked through their shared journey, from settling into the Bras de Pina favela and scraping around for work, to training under veteran Olympic judo coach Geraldo Bernardes at the Insituto Reacão, which helps disenfranchised youth affected by poverty and crime.
    Misenga, who was also part of the refugee team at the Olympics, was just nine when his mother was killed during Congo's five-year civil war, which left five million people dead and many more displaced.
    He recalls seeing his father go off to work when his mother was killed.
    As he puts it, "I ran for days in the woods and was eventually rescued by UNICEF."
    In almost every one of his utterances, he thanks both God -- both he and Mabika are fiercely religious -- and those that have backed him, including the International Olympic Committee which still supports him financially, and Visa.
    "I owe everything to the sport," he says looking back on the effects of 2016. "The Games were very important in my life. Everything that has happened in my life in the first place is due to both the love that God has for me and then the judo."

    All eyes on Tokyo 2020

    His post-Games fame was such that he had to cut off his dreadlocked hair so he would get less attention as he walked down the street.
    Unlike Mabika, judo is his sole focus.
    Mabika and Misenga walk alongside IOC President Thomas Bach.
    "I have no other job other than judo," he explains. "I live on the money from the International Olympic Committee scholarship, which is my job."
    Prior to the Games, tears streaked down his cheeks as he talked very publicly to the camera about family he had left behind, with no idea who might still be alive.
    His increased profile has led to reunions with his surviving older sister and younger brother, both of whom he talks to whenever possible.
    However, Misenga admits life in a Rio favela is far from perfect.
    "Unfortunately, we live in an area of risk, we always go through difficult scenes and moments of distress and despair," he says.
    For the judo duo, the goal is the same, namely to make another Olympic experience at the home of their sport in Tokyo in two years' time.
    For Misenga, the goal "is not just to participate but to win a medal this time," while Mabika is similarly focused.
    She says: "I train every day because I also prepare for the 2020 Olympics, the Olympic refugee team is very dedicated to the sport because we are grateful to it. It was what kept us alive and hoping to fight and have a better life in this country and in other places in the world that believe in people.
    "The Olympics are like this, people fighting for life in the sport. It is an honor to represent the refugee team, to be well received in Brazil and to represent my sport."
    A decision has yet to be made on whether the refugee team will compete again in 2020 but both are optimistic it will be with them both in the mix once more.