Running her way from refugee camp to Rio: Olympics' first refugee team

Anjelina Nadai of South Sudan, who spent much of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp, is one of 10 refugees named today to the Olympic refugee team.

Ryan Lenora Brown
Angelina Nadai of South Sudan (center, in light blue top) competes in a 1500 meter race at a recent meet in Eldoret, Kenya, where her competitors were among the country's most elite middle distance runners.

When Anjelina Nadai started running 15 years ago, as a young girl, it wasn’t the Olympics she was dreaming of. In fact, she had never even heard of the Olympics. She ran simply to finish her chores more quickly.  

“My mother used to keep the cows far from home, and it was my job to milk them,” she says. It took an hour to get to them if she walked, but only half an hour if she ran. So that is exactly what she did.

Since then, Ms. Nadai has done a lot of running away – first from the village where she grew up in what was then southern Sudan, then from her country itself – the young nation of South Sudan – to the massive refugee camp in neighboring Kenya where she would spend much of her childhood.  

But more recently she has once again had something to run towards. For the past six months, Nadai has been training in Kenya to be part of the first-ever Olympic team for refugees. And on Friday afternoon, she found out she – along with nine other athletes from around the world – had made the cut.

“I’m even more than excited,” she told The Christian Science Monitor just after the announcement. “I didn’t expect this, but it will change my life.”

Congolese judo fighters and Syrian swimmers

Nadai found out she had qualified for the team at the same moment as the rest of the world did, watching by streaming video from Kenya as International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach made the announcement at the conclusion of the IOC’s executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, this afternoon.

“We are convinced that this refugee Olympic team can send a symbol of hope to all the refugees in the world and it can send a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are [an] enrichment to society,” he said. “These refugee athletes will show to the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills, and the strength of the human spirit.”

In addition to Nadai, four other South Sudanese runners were named to the team – James Nyang Chiengjiek, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paul Amotun Lokoro, and Yiech Pur Biel. All five were until recently residents of Kakuma, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, in Kenya. They are joined by two Congolese judo fighters – Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika; two Syrian swimmers – Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis; and an Ethiopian marathoner, Yonas Kinde.

Recruited from a refugee camp

The delegation will be led by the legendary Kenyan marathoner Tegla Loroupe, a United Nations Ambassador for Sport whose foundation trained the five South Sudanese – along with a dozen other east African refugee runners – at a camp in the Kenyan town of Ngong.

“These are extraordinary people. When they came to us, they were not real athletes – they had been in a refugee camp, some did not even have enough food, and they had left everything – their country, their culture – which is not an easy thing,” says Ms. Loroupe, who is featured in the Monitor’s most recent cover story, “Refugee runners”. “I feel so proud to see them now.”

Without a country to represent, the refugee Olympic team will march under the Olympic flag, and should any of them win a medal, the Olympic anthem will be played. It’s an inelegant solution for a group of athletes torn between two worlds. Some, like the judo fighters, who live in Brazil – want to stay in their adopted countries. Others, including Nadai, still dream of one day returning home.

Mr. Bach acknowledged Friday at the refugee team was, at best, a temporary solution.

“The real goal is that we don’t need one anymore,” he said. Instead, he said, the IOC would like to see refugee athletes absorbed into their new host countries and encouraged to compete for those Olympic teams.

One of the 43 athletes originally in contention for the refugee team, Iranian taekwondo fighter Raheleh Asemani, has already done exactly that. Between being announced as a contender for the refugee team and the final selection, she was granted citizenship in Belgium, where she lives and works as a postman. Ms. Asemani will now compete for her adoptive country in Rio.

When 'your life depends on it'

But for the 10 athletes selected for the refugee squad, this was their only path to Rio. And while it was never an easy one, Mr. Chiengjiek, one of the South Sudanese runners, says he and his teammates knew exactly what the stakes were.  

“When you are doing something because your life depends on it, it doesn’t matter if it becomes difficult,” Chiengjiek says. “You keep running because you know you need the outcome.”

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