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The First Team of Refugee Olympians Will Be Competing for Dignity

19 minute read


So goes the first act of a refugee: a scramble for food or clothing, a grab of the nearest helping hand, flight. Were the soldiers coming to take territory? Or coming for forced conscripts the way they did two years before, when Yiech Pur Biel’s father ran and never came back? In those first moments it didn’t matter; the soldiers were coming. So Biel and his mother, two sisters and younger brother rushed out of their home, five more drops in the human flood rushing into the scrubby forest outside the town of Nasir, in the northeast of what would soon become South Sudan.

This was 2005. What month? Biel doesn’t remember. What season? He can’t say. He was 10 then, an age when time means little but the loss of home feels like the earth cracking. “When they attacked us,” he says, “I saw it was the end of my life with my family.”

It got worse. Biel–who would grow up intent on proving, along with the nine other members of the Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Games, that refugees “are not animals”–then took what is often the next step: he lived like an animal. Hiding in the bush, senses on high alert, no food to be had. For three days his family, sleepless, bellies screaming, foraged for fruit and climbed trees for their bitter leaves.

Finally, Biel’s mother Nyagony made a decision. The border with Ethiopia was only 19 miles away, a week’s walk; maybe they could get food there. Biel was the oldest boy. There was no avoiding the cruel calculus: she could handle three children on the road but not four. “You see,” Biel says, “if I am 10 years, I can survive without her, maybe.”

He tried to understand. His mother placed him with a woman from their neighborhood, gathered his brother and sisters and went. So began the refugee’s third, most wrenching act, the separation endured, in some form, by more than 21 million refugees and another 44 million forcibly displaced people. Biel has not spoken to his mother and siblings since then. He doesn’t know if they survived the trek, the soldiers, the years.

While relating all this in July, during a break at the Tegla Loroupe Training Center in Ngong, Kenya, about 14 miles outside Nairobi, the 21-year-old Biel speaks in a high monotone, his face giving away nothing. He says he cried the day his mother left him, but it wasn’t his worst moment. That came after, when he went with the neighbor lady and her two children back to Nasir and found it in ashes. “They burned everything,” he says of the soldiers. “There was nothing. The village has gone. They took animals, even killed some. The army go away. All that remained were the dead people.”

That’s when Biel knew he was lost. The neighbor would be going now, surely, and he was terrified that she too would do the math, “turn against me” and leave him behind. “I thought it was my end,” he says. So for the next 24 hours, one full day, the boy waited for his dying to begin.

When International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced the 10 members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in June–after a yearlong global vetting by 17 national Olympic committees and the U.N. Refugee Agency and tryouts in Europe and Africa that resembled nothing so much as the hunt for Willy Wonka’s golden tickets–he clearly intended the impact to redound far beyond sports. “A symbol of hope to all the refugees in our world,” Bach called the squad. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”

A cynic might call this a stroke of marketing genius. What with endless reports out of Rio de Janeiro about depleted budgets, political collapse, social unrest and the Zika virus and consequent withdrawal of high-profile athletes; amid striking allegations of systematic doping by traditional powers Russia and Kenya; and after making laughable bets that staging recent Olympics in China and Russia would improve those countries’ human-rights records, the Olympic brand has taken a savage beating. A bit of humanitarian counterprogramming, smacking of IOC founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s ideals, surely couldn’t hurt.

To be fair, Bach had been thinking about pairing the global refugee crisis–the worst since World War II–and the Olympics almost from the moment he took office in September 2013. Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan marathon legend, had been scouting and training talented South Sudanese refugees for years; Bach spoke to her that fall about expanding the work worldwide, and last September the IOC authorized $2 million in funding for the effort. “I was always wishing that I had somebody to help me,” says Loroupe, whose training camp welcomed 30 refugee runners last October. “If it was not for IOC, I couldn’t support these athletes.”

The Syrian war, of course, was the main source of the more than 1 million refugees who flowed into Europe in 2015. But long-standing conflict, drought and instability also scattered countless Africans, including 160,000 Ethiopians in that time, like Refugee Team marathoner Yonas Kinde, 36, who has been living, running and driving taxis in Luxembourg since 2011. “I left because of political problems,” Kinde told the IOC, “but I am here, and I am lucky.”

Their routes to these Games differ, but all the Olympic refugees share the same mission: to change the conversation. They know that refugees have become easy scapegoats in scared societies, easy applause lines for politicians and all too easy to caricature as criminal or unclean. In Rio they hope to present an alternative to all the wire photos of crowded camps and dead bodies washed ashore, relieve the basic human fear of the other. They want to show that they can march in a parade, wave, smile, run and compete–just like everyone else.

“It is very challenging when you are chased away from your homeland,” says Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 22, a 1,500-m runner from South Sudan. “Nobody can feel happy when you are chased or you stay in another country. But right now I feel proud. I’m proud to be a refugee.”

“We are representing the millions of refugees all over the world,” she continues. “Maybe, in years to come, I will represent myself. But at this moment, we are their light. Wherever they are, at least they will now have some encouragement and know we can do something. Wherever they are, they are human beings. They are not animals. That’s why we have been given this chance. So they should not be looked down on. Or treated unfairly.”

Late on July 8, word came in that James Nyang Chiengjiek’s home was dropping once more into hell. Chiengjiek, 28, a South Sudanese 800-m runner whose father was killed in 1999 during Sudan’s civil war, had fled his village at 13 to avoid being kidnapped. Now he stood outside the social hall at Loroupe’s training center. A teammate walked up, fresh off a phone call from South Sudan’s capital. “Fighting has broken out in Juba,” he said.

Artillery, machine-gun fire: forces aligned with the President were battling those loyal to the Vice President. A tenuous peace in the country’s latest, 32-month civil war was unraveling fast. Chiengjiek wasn’t upset. “No, no, it’s good,” he said. One side would finally beat the other into submission, he figured, “and after this all the fighting will stop.”

In truth, the road to a clear resolution figures to be long and brutal. At least 300 people died and 40,000 fled Juba in the ensuing four days, casting fresh doubt on the viability of the world’s youngest nation. A shattered economy had already forced the cancellation of festivities marking South Sudan’s fifth birthday, and it was just as well; since independence, the nation has had little to be proud of. More than half its children don’t attend school. In March the U.N. accused the government of war crimes that include the mass murder of civilians and allowing soldiers to rape women in lieu of payment. South Sudan, the U.N. report concluded, has created “one of the most horrendous human-rights situations in the world.”

It seems only right, then, that fully half of the 2016 Refugee Team–Biel, Lohalith, Chiengjiek, 800-m runner Rose Nathike Lokonyen and 1,500-m runner Paulo Amotun Lokoro–call South Sudan home. Aside from age-old disrupters like war and famine, South Sudan features some of the most extreme abuses that drive away today’s refugees. Chiengjiek first “ran,” as all the runners call it, because the army wanted to brainwash children into being soldiers. Meanwhile, half of South Sudanese girls between ages 15 and 19–and some as young as 12–are subjected to forced marriage. Lohalith decided, at all of 9 years old, to go with an aunt to Kenya because her Didinga community expected her to submit to early marriage. “But I was planning to go to school by then,” she says. “I was wishing to become a doctor.”

Political and tribal authorities aren’t the only ones creating nightmares. Separating mostly Christian South Sudan from Muslim-dominated Sudan in 2011 seemed a fairly straightforward task, compared with reconciling the nation’s warring ethnicities. The dominant Dinka and Nuer tribes have forever battled for power, which helps explain the current hostilities: on one side the Dinka, and on the other the Nuer. And though some 650,000 South Sudanese have bolted the country since the conflict began in 2013, those tensions were not left behind.

All five South Sudanese runners came through the 25-year-old Kakuma Refugee Camp, a holding area for 185,000 people in northwestern Kenya. “When refugees fight [among] themselves, you face a lot of challenges,” says Lokonyen, 23, who lived in Kakuma from the time she was 9 until last fall. In 2014 the Dinka and the Nuer battled there for weeks with sticks, guns and the machetes called pangas. “So many people were dying in that fighting,” she says, gesturing to the back of her neck. “I saw: They were cutting one of the young kids, he was Dinka, cut by panga. He passed away. One of my tribe–Didinga–was killed as well.”

Preventing tribal divisions from infecting the Ngong training center was a priority when the 30 runners began arriving last October. “It wasn’t easy, let me tell you,” Loroupe says. She has more experience with this than most: since 2001 the two-time winner of the New York City Marathon has persuaded rival East African warlords and politicians to run together in well over a dozen “peace races.” Aided by Kenya’s Olympic committee and coaches, Loroupe put together a roster of refugee Olympic candidates that included runners from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia, but most were South Sudanese Dinka, Nuer and Didinga, fresh from Kakuma and from Kenya’s even larger refugee camp at Dadaab.

“I did not know that even these people had been fighting,” Loroupe says. She split the captaincies between a Nuer and a Didinga and told everyone, “Forget what happened in your camp. We are here as ambassadors. We have been chosen … Show a good example. Be a new person that your people in Kakuma will see, so they can also change.”

Lohalith, like Lokonyen a Didinga, saw her village burned to the ground by Dinka tribesmen. That act touched off a lonely 16-year journey; Lohalith never spoke to her family again. But she and her teammates say that Loroupe’s training center never buckled under tribal conflict. Lohalith takes no satisfaction in the fact that no Dinka is included among the five South Sudanese runners eventually chosen. The IOC made the final decision and, says Pere Miró, an IOC deputy director general, based it solely on the ability of each refugee to, if not medal, “compete, at least, in the Games.”

“In running they don’t choose according to tribe, but by performance,” Lohalith says. “We were selected as refugees, so we should not think about tribe. Let us leave the things of the past and live like one people. Right now we are working for the competition and the Olympics. Let us focus on only one thing, as a team.”

When asked her personal best in the 800, Lokonyen says, “2:22,” then smiles and adds, “I need to reduce.” It’s true: the Olympic qualifying time is 2:01.50. But then, all the South Sudanese runners have come up well short of the qualifying times for their events and been waived into the Games by the IOC. Of the 10 refugee athletes, in fact, only marathoner Yonas Kinde would have made it to the Olympics strictly on athletic achievement–had he a nation to represent.

The team’s current statelessness, of course, makes membership an honor only if it’s temporary; the sooner the athletes lose refugee status, the better. That’s why perhaps the most successful candidate in the selection process didn’t make it. Taekwondo fighter Raheleh Asemani of Iran was atop the short list after winning the women’s under-57-kg class in European qualifying in January, but in April she was granted citizenship in Belgium. She will compete under its flag in Rio.

The rest will be guaranteed only a walk in the opening ceremony, a bed in the athletes’ village and a place in qualifying. That’s plenty, of course, but the refugees point out that they’ve been training just nine months, while other Olympians have had a lifetime to prepare. Before last October none of the South Sudanese had ever worked out with weights, thought about diet or endured twice-daily practices, timed and charted. None had ever lived as an athlete or raced so often–much less in a cooler climate and under a new kind of stress. Knees barked. Chests got congested. More than half of the runners at Loroupe’s training center, including the lone Dinka woman, got sent back to Kakuma or Dadaab. Lohalith came down with malaria.

“A lot of injuries, diseases that never come up–our bodies were responding,” says Lohalith, whose personal best for the 1,500 is 4:52. (Olympic qualifying time is 4:07.) “A few managed to bear with it, then the team began a lot of trials. I came up with [a faster] time. Even though we were told, ‘You are not that qualified,’ at least we were better. Now we are getting used to it. I cannot hope to win, but I will go and try my best to compete–no matter how hard it is. I cannot walk off the field. I have to at least try to finish.”

It’s impossible to miss the Walter Mitty factor here; Hollywood screenwriters should be taking notes. Being on this team is the closest an Everyman will come to competing in the world’s most prestigious sporting event. Never mind the irony of trying to prove that refugees are “like anybody else” by lining them up against the most uncommon humans alive. Before their luck turned, Lokoro and Biel herded cattle. Chiengjiek was studying to be a car mechanic. Concede an accident of fate, of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’ve been like anybody else all along.

Still, they don’t want to hear that. The five South Sudanese runners intend to return to Loroupe’s training center after their longest journey yet; they want to see if, with more training, they actually can be elite athletes. And it looks as if Loroupe will have them. The IOC’s $2 million training fund is all but exhausted, Miró says, but he expects it to be renewed. “We have a lot of, let’s say, offers to cooperate in something for these 10 people,” he says. “What we’d like is that these offers will continue after the Games for many other people.”

All of the South Sudanese runners speak of wanting to follow Loroupe’s example: win races around the world, build careers, pass on what they’ve learned. “If I do something better in my life, I want to help the refugees who have suffered like me,” Lokoro, 24, says. “So many refugees have talent but don’t have a chance. I want to have a place like this so they can rise up, run and go somewhere, visit other continents like me now. It is all opening up for me. My life, it’s like a new one.”

Unwittingly, perhaps, the IOC has given the 10 something they’ve never had. Refugees, especially young ones, spend most of their lives shunted about by great forces such as war, climate, tribe and bureaucracy. Even now the refugee Olympians are being directed daily by Loroupe’s foundation, coaches, U.N. refugee officials, media handlers and the imperatives of the IOC. But for the first time they’ve been given room to hope, and better: to make a plan.

“I know I have a message to tell the world,” Biel says. “I feel a lot of pressure, because millions of refugees are looking to us to tell what they are living. Secondly, it’s about my nation: South Sudan. If I succeed and only go live abroad, there’s no legacy that I give to other people. I want to come back and serve the nation, show them the way as a peacemaker, tell the world that we can challenge our leaders. Because the leaders make the problems. Thirdly, it’s about my family. The background I come from; it’s a terrible history, you see. I must change that. Maybe I can go back to that village now to help the young people. Because I know that it’s not only my family that was suffering.”

No, Yiech Pur Biel didn’t die. Because what the refugees say is true, of course: they are not animals. They are like anyone else, capable of great good amid even the worst times. The neighbor lady, Rebecca Nyagony Chuol, did not desert Biel the day after his mother walked away in 2005–though no one would have blamed her if she had. Her husband had just been killed, and she had two boys to raise alone, and the U.N. people triaging the chaos in Nasir had tabbed Chuol and her children to be rescued first. The truck for Kakuma was filling up. “We are going,” Chuol told Biel. “But I don’t think your mother is coming back. And we’re not going to leave you here.”

So she told the U.N. refugee workers that Biel was part of her family. And he went with her to Kakuma and lived with her like a third son. “I call her Mom, because she’s caring for me and treats me the same as she did her own children,” Biel says. “They saved my life.”

He didn’t grow up running. He loved soccer; a lanky defender ranging across the grassless pitches of Kakuma, he could go all day if asked. He ran the occasional school relay, to help out, but never more than a lap or two. Then, a year ago, a posting went up in the camp: Tegla Loroupe was coming in August to stage a 10-km race, and the best would earn spots at her training center and a chance at the Olympics. Biel liked that runners controlled their own fate. He thought, Why not me?

He had one pair of sneakers, barely; holes gaped under the balls of both feet. “There was no sole,” he says. “I was tying them, and I say, ‘God help me now.'”

Biel, running the whole way on his toes, finished third. The flight from Kakuma to Nairobi was his second, the first having come when the U.N. flew Chuol’s family into Kakuma a decade before. After news got around that Biel was one of the 30 chosen, he received a phone call from an uncle in Juba. “Your family is alive,” the man said. “Your mother, your brother, even your father. They are all back in Nasir.”

Biel has no idea if this is true. He still hasn’t spoken to anyone in his family, can’t go back himself and says that in his culture, people lie rather than confirm bad news long-distance. “I cannot believe it,” he says, “because when you are far away, they cannot tell you the truth. They don’t want you to be hurt. But sometimes I think about it and say, ‘O.K., maybe they are alive,’ and it makes me happy. I say … maybe. Imagine: for 12 years I never see my father, and then this guy tells me that he’s alive. It’s hard.”

Still, all the while Biel kept working, improving, surviving cuts: when 16 of the originals at Loroupe’s training center were replaced in February, when the IOC named the 43 final candidates worldwide in March, when the list of candidates at the training center was later reduced to 14. And with each step an idea took firmer shape: if he makes something of this chance, makes any money, he will get Chuol and her sons out of Kakuma. “That is the way I can thank them,” Biel says.

On June 3 the runners gathered inside the social hall at Loroupe’s training center for the IOC’s announcement. No hints had been given. The coaches warned them: Only one of you might go to Rio. It’s O.K. Don’t despair if you’re not chosen.

A video screen popped to life, relaying the image of Thomas Bach sitting at a table in Lausanne, Switzerland. Some runners prayed. Some felt their hands shaking. Then they heard their names being read from far away, one by one, five of them inside that room in Kenya. “It felt like a dream,” Lokoro says.

The first was Biel’s. At the unreal sound of it–him, his name!–coming out of a TV on a wall, his eyes filled. He thought about his mother and the last time, 11 years ago, he had cried. Now he wept again, happily. When the cameras and reporters and his teammates crowded around him, he could barely speak.

“It was too big,” Biel says, but if you’ve never lost everything, you might not understand. That was the bell signaling the last leg of a long, desperate run. A refugee is on the move. Cheer hard. Look at him–look at all of them–go.

–With reporting by JARED MALSIN/ISTANBUL

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