In 2001, Popole Misenga’s mother was murdered during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He was nine years old at the time. After walking alone for a week, he was finally rescued and taken to Kinshasa, where he was exposed to judo for the first time.
Later this month, Misenga will represent the Refugee Olympic team for the second time after his debut in Brazil in 2016, where he has been living since 2013.
When Misenga participated in the World Judo Championships in Brazil in 2013, his life changed.
He fled the camp of the Democratic Republic of the Congo without money, passport or food. He said this was his only chance and opportunity to escape after being abused by his coach and for not winning a medal.
Surviving the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and living a challenging life in Brazil, Misenga said that he never forgot his dream and just wanted to show the world that anything is possible.
Al Jazeera told the judo player his life in Brazil, how judo helped him physically and mentally, and how he got so close to his dreams coming true.
Judoka Popole Misenga will once again represent refugees in the Olympic Games, this time as a father. He hopes to inspire refugees all over the world to follow their dreams like him. 🥋#Refugee Olympic Team #Joined forces #hope #Tokyo2020 #OlympicRefuge@refugee pic.twitter.com/A9G1F5i4w5
-Refugees Olympic Team (@RefugeesOlympic) July 4, 2021
Al Jazeera: You haven’t been back to the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2013. What do you miss most about your country?
Misenga: I just miss my brother. We usually talk on the phone, but we haven’t seen each other since 2013.
Al Jazeera: You escaped the team training camp in 2013. How difficult was this decision? Looking back now, do you think it is correct?
Misenga: I did not decide to stay in Brazil, it just happened. At that moment, the pressure on the national team coaches was so great. They treat us badly, they don’t care about us, everything is bad, they never stop.
We are hungry. We have no money. They did not pay us. Once, I didn’t eat for three days, and I couldn’t stand this situation anymore. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the situation is the same. I don’t have a place to sleep, I don’t have a house or family. So I decided that since I have nothing to lose, I can stay in Brazil and start a new life.
This is the right decision. Today, I have my beloved wife and children. I never thought I could be a father.
Al Jazeera: What is the experience of living in a slum in Rio?
Misenga: not easy. I left my country in the war, and when I arrived here, I was living in another war. These wars are happening all the time, and there is chaos and gunfire everywhere. Innocent people were also killed. People will break into my house to avoid stray bullets. Even so, I decided to stay.
I escaped from a severely abused system and stayed in a country alone. I spent some time sleeping on the streets of Rio, without eating, until I found a shelter in the north of the city, where there is a small Congolese community.
I lived there for a few years, making a living by informal work.
Now, I hope that one day I can leave Brazil, give my children a chance to study abroad, give them a good life path and a better future.
Al Jazeera: When did you start training in Brazil?
Misenga: I started training at Reacao Institute, a non-governmental organization founded by former athlete Flavio Canto. In this center, I also got the help of co-founder and senior Olympic coach Geraldo Bernardes (Geraldo Bernardes), who has coached the Brazilian national judo team.
That was when I started to dream of participating in the Olympics.
Al Jazeera: Since you participated in the first Olympic Games in 2016, how has your life changed?
Misenga: Everything has changed. Fortunately, I received financial support from the International Olympic Committee and the International Judo Federation until I managed to get rid of the slums I lived in. Now, I live in a safe place, where I will not hear gunshots all the time.
For a few days I was unable to reach or leave my house because of the gang war. I’m not used to it yet, but I can’t leave either because I couldn’t afford it at the time.
Al Jazeera: What is it like to be a member of the refugee Olympic team?
Misenga: We, refugees, have dreams, just like everyone else. We dream of being a person and doing what we like, we will never give up. I am an example of many refugees who are now able to go to school. I have successfully realized my dream, and I want to remind millions of refugees around the world to have more dreams and make things happen.
Al Jazeera: What are your expectations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? How did you prepare and what are the challenges?
Misenga: The biggest challenge is the coronavirus pandemic. I was very careful, always keeping my hands clean, washing my hands with alcohol gel, wearing a mask, and training at home alone during the lockout period when I could not train with my colleagues. This happened not only to me, but to everyone around the world.
For me, I just want to realize my dream, which is to participate in competitions and win medals. This is my idea: to win a medal for our team.
Al Jazeera: Your story has inspired many people around the world. How does this make you feel? What is your message for millions of refugees around the world?
Misenga: My message is very simple. Never let your dreams die. Make sure you pursue them. I dream of winning medals for my team and telling more beautiful stories to millions of refugees around the world. Now I am very close to this.
For clarity and length, this interview has been edited.