Refugee team competes in World Athletics Championships

Five athletes heading from Kenya to the IAAF championships in London will be the first refugees to take part in the competition.

Kenya. The Refugee Olympic Team athletes join the Kenya National Team's training session in Nairobi

Middle distance runners Anjelina Lohalith (left) and Rose Lokonyen, members of the Refugee Athletes Team, take part in a training session in Nairobi for the London World Athletics Championships.   © UNHCR/Tobin Jones

NAIROBI, Kenya – Five refugee athletes are heading to London from Kenya to compete in the World Athletics Championships opening this week, the first time in the competition’s 34-year history that refugees will be taking part.

Ahmed Bashir Farah, Anjelina Lohalith, Dominic Lobalu, Rose Lokonyen and Kadar Omar will be participating as members of the Athlete Refugee Team.

The athletes are pleased to have the opportunity to compete internationally after months of training in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Nineteen-year-old Ahmed, who will compete in the 800 metres, has been a refugee in Nairobi since he fled violence in Somalia with his mother and two sisters when he was just nine years old.

“I feel great going to London,” he said. “We only have a few days left. I want to run my best time and qualify for the next stage. You know this is my first big international race so it’s normal, you have to feel a little nervous and scared but once I’m on the field, the fear will leave me.”

Training mate Anjelina from South Sudan, a refugee for 10 years, will be running in the women’s 1,500 metres. She’s excited about the competition, but it is not the first time she will be running internationally.

“I have to polish my talent and to show people in the world that a refugee can make it.”

The 23-year-old took part in the Rio Olympics in 2016 as part of the Refugee Olympic Team, the first time in the history of the Games that refugees were allowed to participate as a team. The championships, organized by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from 4 to 13 August, take place almost a year to the day since the start of the Rio Olympics.

“I see myself competing one day, one time in a higher level,” she said. “Right now, I’m participating with the champions and now this is my time I have to polish my talent and to show people in the world that a refugee can make it.”

Refugee athletes

Kenya: World Athletics Championships (Walter Kigali, camera / Mary Theru Wambui, producer)

Ahmed and Anjelina, with the three other refugees taking part, have had the opportunity to train with the Kenyan national team, including David Rudisha, the 800 metres world record holder and Olympic champion.

Rudisha has just announced he will not be competing in London because of a muscle strain, but Bashir says training with Kenya’s world champions has boosted the confidence of the refugee team.

“You know when you are training with a champion, with a record holder, you gain morale,” he said. “You start to see yourself in the same way. So, when you go to race, the other athletes don’t intimidate you because you were training with someone like Rudisha.”

“As far as I am concerned, the team is ready and we are only waiting for the gun.”

Kadar Omar, originally from Ethiopia – a country well known for producing athletics champions – will have the chance to run in the same competition as his idol, the British distance runner Mo Farah, who won the gold medal for the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres at the Rio Games.

“This is like a dream come true because I have been working on this for almost three years,” Kadar, 20, said. “I did not give up. I aspire to be like Mo Farah. I am a big fan. My goal is to run with him in future. He is a good athlete, the way he runs and his style inspire me a lot.”

Dominic Lobalu will be running in the 1,500 metres and Rose Lokonyen in the 800 metres.

Kenya. The Refugee Olympic Team athletes join the Kenya National Team's training session in Nairobi

Members of the Refugee Athletes Team take a break after a training session with the Kenyan national team at the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi.  © UNHCR/Tobin Jones

The Athlete Refugee Team were selected for the London championships after trials organized by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. Long-distance runner Tegla Loroupe is the world record holder for 20, 25 and 30 kilometres and has been coaching the five athletes and other refugees.

Part of the foundation's mission is to promote the socio-economic development of poor and marginalized individuals and communities in northern Kenya and the Horn of Africa. It has organized annual Peace Races across East Africa.

Loroupe helped refugees gain acceptance to enter the Rio Games, and is leading the way in finding opportunities for refugees to participate in international sporting events. Since Rio, Kenyan refugee athletes have competed in Cyprus, the Bahamas, Uganda and Rwanda.

Coach John Anzara, who works for the foundation, says he is confident the athletes will do well in London.

“We have gone through paces. We have trained well. As far as I am concerned, the team is ready and we are only waiting for the gun.”