By DEREK GATOPOULOS
ATHENS, Greece (AP) – If they had a home, refugees would belong to the world's 24th most populous nation, just behind Italy. On Tuesday, there were honored as members of the Olympic family.
The Olympic flame, on a 106-day journey from the game's ancient birthplace in southern Greece to Rio de Janeiro, made a symbolic stop at a United Nations-run refugee camp in Athens. The torch was carried by Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al-Hussein.
The 27-year-old ran with a prosthetic limb fitted below his right knee, and said he was thrilled to get the invitation.
“This is such an honor for me. This is for every Syrian and ever Arab who has gone through so much,” Al-Hussein said afterward, following chaotic scenes at the camp as he was surrounded by cameramen and refugees using smartphones to take photos and selfies.
“My message to them is not just to stay in refugee camps and to do nothing, but to go after their dream.”
IOC President Thomas Bach visited the Athens camp in January to promote a refugee sports program, aimed at identifying elite competitors who can qualify for a refugee team to compete in the Rio Games.
A team of 5 to 10 athletes is scheduled to be selected by the IOC in early June. The refugee team will march behind the Olympic flag in the opening ceremony on Aug. 5.
At the camp, Guinean refugee Sekou Sanogo played soccerl with friends and said he was happy to see the torch relay pass through.
“It think it's a good thing,” he said. “There are so many journalists here – I hope it will help us.”
Greece has been hard hit by the migration crisis that escalated dramatically in 2015.
More than 1 million people have traveled in dinghies and mostly unsafe boats from Turkey to the Greek islands. More than 50,000 remain trapped here after European countries imposed strict border controls.
Katerina Kitidi, from the U.N. refugee agency in Greece, welcomed Bach's initiative.
“With a staggering 60 million people living in displacement around the world, such a strong symbolic gesture aims to show solidarity to those fleeing conflict and persecution,” she told the AP on Tuesday.
“Xenophobia and intolerance are growing in many areas, and this initiative creates hope for refugees and awareness on their plight.”
The Rio flame was lit in Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Games in southern Greece, last week. It arrives in Brazil on May 3, and will be relayed across the vast country by about 12,000 torchbearers before the opening ceremony at Rio's Maracana Stadium.
The flame will be handed to Rio Games organizers at a ceremony in Athens Wednesday, the marble Panathinian Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
Nicholas Paphitis, Theodora Tongas and Raphael Kominis contributed. Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/
IOC: Olympic Solidarity programs http://ow.ly/4n75JE/
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