A homecoming for any athlete who has appeared at an Olympics is special – but for five who competed at the Rio Olympics, the place they formerly called home was the vast refugee camp at Kakuma in Kenya.
They returned to a heroes’ welcome at the camp Monday, with one sign reading: “You are gold medal winners in our eyes.” It followed an equally rapturous reception at Nairobi airport.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the athletes will stay among family friends in the camp for a week before returning to their training camp in the Nairobi suburbs.
The camp holds more than 180,000 people, refugees who have fled fighting in places like South Sudan – people like Yiech Pur Biel, a 21-year-old refugee who ran in the 800 meters at Rio. He told CNN: “We were celebrating, walking around the camp, they were dancing.
“They were appreciating us because they didn’t expect this one would happen in our lives. They tell us now ‘we know we can do something in our lives and we can be role models in our lives.”’
Beacon of hope
Sport appears to be one of the few things that gives hope to those living in the harsh conditions of a refugee camp, something noted by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC created a £2 million training fund to help take refugee athletes to Rio – the first to appear at an Olympic Games.
The 10-strong team that competed under the Olympic flag at Rio certainly touched the hearts of many across the world.
A giant mural dedicated to the stateless refugee team – originally from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Syria – appeared on the streets of Rio.
And who could forget the smile of 18-year-old Yusra Mardini after winning her 100-meter butterfly heat? She swam for Syria in the short-course world championships in 2012 but was forced to swim for her life while trying to flee the conflict there. Her boat capsized off the Greek coast.
‘Highlight was meeting champions’
Five of her team mates grew up in Kakuma before joining a track and field project set up by former Kenyan Olympic marathon runner Tegla Loroupe.
Yiech Pur Biel was chosen by Loroupe’s foundation, and, despite having no shoes at the camp, still managed to train to be a runner on the international stage.
The athletes were greeted at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport by friends, family and a troupe of drummers from Burundi, and it’s where Biel told of his joy at mixing with the world’s best athletes.
“The highlight was meeting champions – and competing with champions,” he said on the U.N. refugee agency website (UNHCR)
“But we have also shown the world refugees doing something very good, so that people know refugees for who we are,” he said.
Flight from war
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, who ran in the 1,500 meters, fled South Sudan more than 15 years ago and has not seen her family since, the UNHCR reports.
But she said the Rio experience has made her realize that she can achieve any objective.
“Meeting people from around the world was the best thing about Rio for me. Now I am focused only on finding a way to see my family again,” she said on the website.
Ahead of the games, 800-meter runner Rose Nathike Lokonyen told of her flight from the brutal civil war in South Sudan, first on foot and then squashed in the back of a truck. She made it out alive, grew up in Kakuma and then joined the training camp.
“Life was so much hard compared to training in this place. The life in Kakuma camp was so hard,” she said.
The UNHCR says the athletes will now return to the training camp in a town north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi and all wanted to continue competing.
In an interview with the UNHCR, Yiech Pur Biel speaks of his hopes for the future and of his love of running. “I can continue to achieve or leave a legacy, to leave a legacy for other people,” he said.
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith added: “I will continue with sport and at least I have to make my future bright when I work hard because right now I am looking forward to support my family and my siblings.
Rio 2016 Olympics: Meet the first ever refugee team
The African athletes will continue to train at the Tegla Loroupe camp and, according to the UNHCR, prepare for possible participation in the World Championships in 2017.
Marco Lembo, the UNHCR external relations officer in Kenya, who is working on making the athlete program permanent, told CNN: “We believe this is just the beginning of a long process which will allow for refugee athletes to participate in the Olympics.
“They represent more than 60 million people. It’s the symbolism of this that is so important. We hope to expand this program to work with more refugees and in more disciplines. We need to ensure long term sustainability.”
Ollie Williams, David McKenzie, Briana Duggan and Fasbien Muhire contributed to this report