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NAIROBI — The first time Yiech Pur Biel boarded a plane, in 2005, it was to escape the war-torn corner of southern Sudan where he grew up. If all goes as planned, the second time he boards a plane, it will be to make history. Biel is slated to compete in the 800m track and field event at the Rio Olympics as a member of the first Refugee
Olympic Team.

In the face of unprecedented global displacement as a result of war, despotism, and poverty, the famously apolitical International Olympic Committee (IOC) made an unprecedented political statement.

They created a team of 10 refugee-athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia who will compete not just for individual Olympic glory, but for the dignity of the world’s 65.3 million displaced people.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” IOC president Thomas Bach said as he officially introduced the team last month.

Biel is more than happy to be the face of that message. He will lead the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony in Rio, where his team will march under the Olympic banner, since they have no flag of their own.

“Most of the refugees, they are looking at us,” he said in a recent interview.

“They are saying, ‘You are on a team that represents us.’ Even if we will not manage to get gold, at least we can do something to show the world we can make it in life.”

Back in 2005, at the tail end of a civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, Biel’s home village was cut off from the rest of the country by fighting.

Years earlier, his father had joined the southern rebellion against the Sudanese government, leaving his mother to care for Biel and his two younger siblings.

Biel, who was 10 at the time, stayed in the care of neighbours. He never saw his family again.

“There was no food,” he recalled. “There was no medicine. People were dying
from diseases.”

A relief team from the United Nations eventually made it to the isolated village and, recognising the urgency of the situation. Biel was bundled onto an emergency flight and shuttled to the Kakuma refugee camp, across the border in Kenya.

Opened in 1992 to shelter Sudanese refugees, Kakuma camp is now home to displaced people from across the region, but more than half are South Sudanese.

Some, like Biel, never left after the war ended, because they had no homes or families to return to.

“It saved my life,” Biel said of Kakuma. “Most of the people, when they’re being called a refugee, they feel ashamed.”

But he says the refugee camp not only saved his life, it helped him become who he is today — a high school graduate who is about to compete against the world’s best sprinters in Rio.

“Where I’ve reached now, it’s because of being a refugee,” he said.

Biel’s unlikely road to the Olympics began on World Refugee Day in June 2015, when the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, founded by the Kenyan marathon champion, helped organise a series of foot races in refugee camps at the request of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Jackson Pkemoi, an official who manages the Refugee Olympic Team’s training facility outside Nairobi, said last year’s World Refugee Day races sparked the idea of establishing a refugee team that would compete in national and regional competitions.

Foundation officials began organising time trials in Kakuma and Dadaab, a camp near the border with Somalia, and setting up a training center in the Ngong Hills on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Biel, who was 20 at the time, had never run competitively before the trials that were held in Kakuma in August, but he decided to give them a shot.

He finished near the top of the 10km race and was invited for additional training.

Loroupe eventually told Bach about the runners her organisation was gathering from Kenya’s refugee camps.

According to Pkemoi, that conversation influenced Bach’s decision to form the Refugee Olympic Team.

Of the 12 athletes whose names Loroupe’s foundation ultimately submitted to the IOC for consideration, five were selected — all of them South Sudanese who had spent most of their childhoods in Kakuma.

The rest of the team include two internationally competitive swimmers from Syria who are living in Belgium and Germany, an Ethiopian marathoner training in Luxembourg, and two refugees from Congo, living in Brazil, who will compete in judo.

The team captures the breadth of the global refugee crisis. Victor Nyamori, a refugee officer with Amnesty International in Nairobi, credited IOC with highlighting not just the plight of Syrians, but other crises, like the ongoing South Sudanese crisis, that often go underreported — and underfunded.

UNHCR estimate it will cost US$637 million (RM2.55 billion) to meet the needs of all of those people this year.

Halfway into the year, the agency has received less than 20 per cent of that money.

For his part, Biel is most interested in calling attention to the experiences that he and his new teammates share.

“We shall meet as refugees, the 10 of us,” he said, ahead of the games.

“We become one team. We are the eyes of the refugees.”

Their participation is a statement, but the Olympics is still a competition — and Rose Nathike Lokonyen, one of Biel’s teammates who is also training in Ngong, is determined to win.

During the team’s ceremonial introduction on June 3, Bach told Lokonyen’s story in detail.

She became a refugee in 2002, arriving in Kakuma with her family at the age of seven. She eventually managed to complete her secondary-school education.

When the trials were announced to earn a spot in the training camp, she entered the 10km race even though she didn’t own a pair of running shoes. She finished second.

Now with proper equipment and 10 months of training under her belt, she plans to improve on that position in Rio.

“I expect to win,” she said. “But it depends on if I’m working hard and how others compete.”

Determination aside, the South Sudanese runners will enter as significant long shots. Still, Lokonyen is determined to prove she belongs.

“Being a refugee doesn’t mean you can’t do anything,” she said.

“Most of the refugees have talent. They just don’t have the chance to express that talent.” — Washington Post