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Why we should support refugee athletes’ Olympic medal hopes in Tokyo: UNHCR

That’s the message from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which on Tuesday called for support for more than 60 Refugee Olympic and Paralympic athletes currently dedicating their lives to training for the games.

To mark the UN’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, 6 April, UNHCR has released ‘The Journey,’ a social video depicting the extraordinary stories of refugee Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

It highlights how sport is more than just a leisure activity; it has the power to bring hope and change for all those forced to flee.

© Japan for UNHCR/Atsushi Shibu
Rose Nathike Lokonyen (right), a South Sudanese refugee, runs with her teammate at a high-altitude training camp in Iten, Kenya.

Winning barefoot

The story it tells, is similar to the life of track and field athlete, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a South Sudanese refugee living in Kenya.

She grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya after fleeing violence in South Sudan when she was just eight years old.

During a school competition in the camp, she ran a 10-kilometre race and finished second.

When trials for the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Refugee Olympic Team training squad came to Kakuma Camp, Rose won her race barefoot.


She went on to train in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi for the Olympic 800-metre event and carried the flag for the first Refugee Olympic Team in history, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Now she is training hard in the hope of getting to Tokyo. “I want to help people everywhere better understand the lives of refugees and the power sport can have to change lives”, said Ms. Lokonyen.

As an official High Profile Supporter for UNHCR, she was one of two IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders who collaborated on the video’s production.

‘The Journey’ tells the dramatised story of a refugee who is forced to flee her home on foot escaping conflict and persecution.

Podium dreams

Travelling over land and sea, she eventually reaches safety, reestablishes her life and starts running towards a new goal: a medal.

UNHCR works closely with the IOC and IPC to support the refugee athletes who continue to train despite the challenges of displacement and the Covid 19 pandemic.

“Against the odds, these extraordinary athletes have kept their dreams alive to represent millions of refugees around the world,” said Dominique Hyde, UNHCR’s Director of External Relations.

“Together with our partners the IOC and IPC we’re dedicated to a world in which all those who have been forced to flee – including those with disabilities – can access their right to sport and play at all levels,” he added.

With more than 80 million people now displaced worldwide, UNHCR is working with governments, the sporting world, civil society and refugees to enable access and participation in sport at all levels for every person forced to flee, including those with disabilities.

‘The Journey’ was created for UNHCR, in partnership with the IOC and International Paralympic Committee, by award-winning agency, Don’t Panic, and directed by Pantera through Anonymous Content.

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