IOC launches campaign to bring light to refugee camps

International Olympic Committee and UNHCR team up in 'Become the Light' campaign for refugee camps without adequate lighting.

A mother carries firewood back to her shelter at Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda's Eastern province. When night falls the camp is in darkness.  © UNHCR/Tony Karumba

GENEVA – Today there are four million refugees living in more than 230 refugee camps worldwide without access to adequate lighting. This means that once night falls almost all activity ends. The effects of this are stark.

There is no option for family or community gatherings or activities; no possibility for work, sports, culture, education or music.

It can be dangerous for refugees to do even the most mundane of activities like walking to the washroom or going to see a friend – especially for women and girls who are exposed to a significant risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

Through its “Become the Light” campaign, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has teamed up with UNHCR to bring light to residents of Mahama refugee camp in northern Rwanda, which is home to over 55,000 refugees who have fled violence in neighbouring Burundi.

At 6 p.m. when the sun sets the entire camp races home and communal life ends. Perhaps most tragically, refugee students in the camp can’t do their homework, study or read. This is a particular challenge for them as they have to move from a French-speaking to an English-speaking education system and need as much time as possible to help make this changeover.

The IOC is already running a major sports project in the camp and bringing light to Mahama will allow athletics to continue after dark as well as provide the opportunity for all other forms of community interaction.

Boys kick a ball at Mahama refugee camp. The absence of light means social activities only take place during day-light hours.  © UNHCR/Tony Karumba

“Sport can be a lifeline for young refugees uprooted by conflict and violence, forced to abandon their homes, communities and even their families”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Sport restores childhood. It helps to heal and restore a sense of normalcy, offering a safe space where children can grow, learn and develop. By providing sustainable, solar powered lighting in refugee camps, we can boost sport and education opportunities for young refugees.”

The public is being asked to help light Mahama camp by participating in the campaign. Supporters donate their physical activity to the IOC by logging onto and registering a fitness tracking device. All of the registered physical activity will be logged and once certain thresholds are reached the IOC will light up part of Mahama camp.

“Sport is about building bridges, bringing people together in the spirit of friendship and respect.” said Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee. “In a world of uncertainties, the message that our shared humanity is greater than the forces that divide us is more relevant than ever before. Athletes carry the light and inspire us, giving us all hope that a better world is possible. We are pleased to be able to continue our close cooperation with UNHCR and our support for refugees as part of this campaign.”

The campaign will build up to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February next year.