Olympic hopefuls bring inspiration to refugee camp

Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya has been a place of celebration this week as residents cheer on their friends and family flying the flag for Team Refugee

The sun is setting on another hot day in Kakuma refugee camp. On any normal evening, people would be hurrying home before the 8pm curfew, anxious to avoid trouble with the police. But every night for the past two weeks, the hurried scamper home has been replaced by an excited stream of people heading towards the temporary giant screens set up in the camp.

The Kakuma camp residents – who number more than 200,000 – have been gathering nightly to cheer on Team Refugee in the Rio Olympics, the first ever team made up of people displaced by war, famine and persecution. The screens have been streaming live coverage of the Olympics in a collaboration between the UN High Commission for Refugees, FilmAid and Amnesty International.

Of the team of 10, half are long-distance runners who have lived in Kakuma since fleeing civil war in South Sudan. This includes 23-year-old Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who waved the Olympic flag in honour of the 21.3 million estimated refugees worldwide during the opening ceremony.

The five runners are joined by two swimmers from Syria, a pair of Congolese Judokas and a marathon runner from Ethiopia.

Buol Jol Noi has been a refugee for almost 30 years, moving between Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. “This team represents all of us. Whether it is a Syrian swimmer or my neighbour from Kakuma, I cheer for them equally because they are fellow refugees.”

“The Syrians, Congolese and Ethiopians are our brothers and sisters,” agrees Mary Aluer Kur, a 21-year-old who has lived in Kakuma for her entire life. “They are in our same situation so we can understand each other. When a Syrian has won, we have all won.”

Kakuma Village - Olympic spectators

Kakuma village watches the Games. Photo: Amnesty International

They are in our same situation so we can understand each other. When a Syrian has won, we have all won

Mary has been training as a journalist with FilmAid. Covering the Olympics has opened her eyes to how much talent there is in a place like Kakuma, and the effect the Olympic screenings have had on the young. “Refugees feel stuck in limbo and don’t believe in themselves. But seeing our friends go to the Olympics has inspired young people to try their best, because for the first time there is hope their efforts will be recognised,” says Mary.

It’s late afternoon and Rose is about to compete in the women’s 800-metre. The screening has not started yet, but people are gathering and a buzz is in the air. Close by, a few young children are about to kick off their own race. One girl joins the others just before the word ‘go’, and stumbles across the finish line next to last, ahead of her younger brother.

Her family look on and laugh. “Rose and Anjelina, the two female runners from Kakuma, are her new heroes. She can’t wait for them to come back so she can meet them,” says her father Deng, who fled South Sudan with his family in 2004. “If she continues running like that, we’ll be proud to see her going to the next Olympics.”

Main image: Ashley Beckett