Athletes who criticised their country's human rights record tell of their gratitude at being allowed to stay in Britain as refugees
The joy of Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata is simply expressed: "By giving us refugee status, the British government has given us life."
Kimbata was one of five Congolese athletes and coaches who competed in the 2012 Paralympics and claimed asylum during the Games. During the competition they spoke publicly about human rights abuses in their country and the lack of equipment provided for them by their government, statements which they say led to threats of violent retribution.
Speaking to the press for the first time since being granted asylum, Kimbata, a 31-year-old wheelchair racer, told the Observer that the British government's decision to allow them to remain had not only potentially saved their lives but transformed them as well.
She was initially given accommodation in Sheffield but has now moved to London, a city which, having "fewer mountains" than Sheffield, is easier for her to walk around with the aid of her crutch.
"I am still under a lot of stress, but when I have sorted myself out I would like to start training again," she said. "I need a coach and a racing chair. My legs were blown off when I stepped on a landmine at the age of 18.
"But even before the accident happened I dreamed of being a top basketball player. Facilities for disabled athletes in Congo are extremely poor, but here at last I have opportunities."
Levy Kitambala Kinzito, 35, a wheelchair basketball player, contracted polio at the age of three, leaving his left leg shorter than his right. He has joined the Sheffield Steelers wheelchair basketball club, the biggest of its kind in the UK. He trains there several times a week and, according to club officials, is making good progress.
"He's making use of the training opportunities we offer," said Manja Wolfram, a coach at the club. "He started off in the third division and now he's playing in the second. He could progress to the first if he continues with his training."
Both athletes dream of taking part in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Kinzito said he would love to represent Great Britain but Kimbata still wants to represent the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I'm lucky to be protected in the UK, but I am still Congolese and would love to race for my country," she said.
Both are seeking sponsorship to help them pursue their careers here and are also keen to highlight the plight of disabled athletes in Congo who have almost no resources to help them progress.
Life in Congo, said Kimbata, was a different story: "I had to use an ordinary orthopaedic wheelchair designed to be pushed by someone else and between five and 10 wheelchair racers would have to share one chair."
Before the London Games, she and Kinzito had been told that funds had been provided to Congo to give them the equipment they would need to compete in their events. But when they arrived in London, they found that no equipment had been provided.
British Paralympic wheelchair racer Anne Wafula Strike gave Kimbata one of her racing chairs and a Senegalese competitor offered equipment to Kinzito.
But the athletes' problems really began when they spoke out on the African station Ben TV about their government's failure to provide equipment. They also condemned human rights abuses in Congo, especially during elections that took place shortly before the London Games started.
"There was a polling station just in front of my house and I saw the military shooting at people who were going to vote," said Kimbata. "My two year-old-daughter became sick because she was so traumatised by the continual sound of gunshots."
Discussing the Games, she said: "We were told by Congolese officials that when we reached the Olympic Village our equipment would be waiting for us but when we arrived there was nothing. Once we started to speak out about this and the problems in our country things got worse and worse for us."
"I was told that I had damaged my country's reputation and that when I returned to N'djili airport in Kinshasa, I would be arrested and killed. Pressure was put on me to speak on a Congolese radio station and retract what I had said, but I refused and ran away when they tried to get me to say these things.
"I was very scared, but was determined to tell the truth, it was not only in my interest but in everyone's interest. They wanted me to say that the wheelchair donated to me was from the Congolese government, but I refused to lie about this.
"When I did any interviews Congolese officials were behind me whispering in our Lingala language what they wanted me to say."
Kinzito claimed that he had also received death threats: "We were at total risk after speaking out. I'm certain I would have been killed if I had been forced to return to Congo. I'm sure that we were being monitored by the Agence Nationale de Renseignements, Congo's intelligence agency. There are no human rights in Congo, no freedom of expression and no democracy. Things are particularly bad for disabled people – and there are many of them in Congo."
Kimbata and Kinzito both included the allegations that they had received death threats from Congolese officials while competing in London in their asylum claims, which were found to be credible by the Home Office.
Kimbata said she had no intention of claiming asylum when she left Congo to compete in the London Games. Indeed, in doing so she has left behind her young family with whom she desperately hopes to be reunited.
"I have three young children in Congo and I told them I would be home in two months," she said. "Now I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to go home."
Her family are caring for the children, but she is missing them terribly: "I need to have my children with me."
The athletes' lawyer, Hani Zubeidi, of Migrant Law Partnership, a London-based firm, welcomed the Home Office's decision to grant the five asylum.
"Their initial application was approved after interview, which is a rare occurrence," he said. "But it does highlight inconsistent decision-making on the part of the Home Office with regard to enforced removals to Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the most dangerous places to be sent back to in terms of the political persecution returnees may face," he said.
For Kimbata and Kinzito and their three teammates, at least, a new life can begin.
The Congolese embassy in London was unavailable for comment on the athletes' allegations of death threats being made against them.
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