An Olympic dream, shattered
The life of Somali sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar came to a tragic end on the perilous Mediterranean sea crossing from Libya to Europe.
Samia Yusuf Omar at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
© EPA/Kerim Okten
After competing for Somalia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Samia Yusuf Omar was determined to return to the track at the 2012 London Games. Yet there is no happy ending to this remarkable young woman’s quest for Olympic glory.
In his book, An Olympic Dream, published last month in English by SelfMadeHero, the award-winning German graphic artist Reinhard Kleist traces the last years of the Somali sprinter’s life, ending with her ill-fated attempt to reach safety in Europe.
A graphic narrative – billed as a novel but also a work of graphic journalism – it begins with her participation in the Beijing Olympics and follows her ambitious, desperate and ultimately doomed attempts to compete in London in 2012.
It is a story of ambition and drive, and the refusal to accept that poverty, repression, threats and violence cannot be overcome.
It is also the story of millions of displaced by war and hunger – 59.5 million by the end of 2014, and even greater numbers forecast for 2015 – who opt for dangerous routes towards a better and safer life in the absence of other alternatives.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has pushed for an increase in safe, orderly ways for refugees to access protection in Europe under managed programmes – such as humanitarian admission programmes, private sponsorships, family reunion, student scholarships and labour mobility schemes – so that refugees do not resort to smugglers and traffickers to reach safety.
It was Samia’s ambition and drive that inspired Kleist, who was in London last March to promote the English version of a book that came out in German in the spring of 2015, just as the refugee emergency began to have a major impact in Europe.
“This is first an individual story,” he told an audience at the Goethe Institute in London. “I wanted to tell Samia’s story.”
Samia, then 17, was one of just two athletes representing war-ravaged Somalia at the Beijing Games. She carried her country’s flag and competed in the 200-metre sprint. She ran a personal best in the first round heat but finished last, nearly ten seconds off the pace.
Footage of that race is still available and shows a runner determined to finish, although even the camera had left her behind. She crossed the finish line to a huge roar from the crowd.
“I wanted to tell Samia’s story, not write about refugees in general.”
Kleist’s story starts with Samia’s family scrambling to find a television in Mogadishu to watch her run. She returns home determined to be a serious competitor in the 2012 Games in London.
Somalia was no place for a young woman from a poor background with sporting ambitions. Wracked by fighting between government forces, clan warlords and Islamist rebels, the country had no proper sports facilities. The capital’s main stadium lay in ruins and Samia suffered harassment from militants.
“She received threats from al-Shabab,” said Teresa Krug, an American journalist who spent years in Somaliland and got to know Samia and her family well.
“Her family was targeted because of her role as an athlete. The national team were seen as connected to the government.” Hardline rebels are opposed to women wearing shorts, which they deem immodest.
In 2010, Samia travelled to Addis Ababa, in neighbouring Ethiopia, where a relative lived and where there were good sports facilities. But she was unable to find a trainer or team to join and, according to Kleist, was unable to renew her visa. With Somali riven by conflict, she decided to make her way to Europe with her aunt.
She followed a well-trodden but dangerous path through Sudan, the Sahara and Libya.
“The trip she did was absolutely not special,” Kleist said in an interview with UNHCR earlier this month. “It’s something that’s happening again and again.” However, few seem to understand how fraught such journeys are.
“Sometimes refugees are on this trip for years. It’s not like they go by bus and are dropped at the beach. No, these are horrible stories, going back and forth, sent back, kidnapped.”
Samia’s odyssey took in all these elements, although the trail went cold for a while. Kleist pieced together elements of the journey through Samia’s own Facebook posts as well as with help from Hodan, a sister who herself had found asylum in Finland.
She made it through the Sahara and reached Libya while its civil war was in progress. There she was kidnapped, although it is not clear by whom. Samia’s family was contacted and asked for ransom. It is also not clear if any money changed hands, but she eventually got out to attempt the last, fateful, stretch of the journey across the Mediterranean, the culmination of months of hard travelling.
Kleist found there were some gaps in the narrative and to fill them he interviewed other Somali refugees who travelled the same way. He used details from their stories to compile a composite of their experiences.
“I think I got close to what could have happened… nobody can really know what happened,” Kleist said.
Research allowed him to include such details as how highway robbers find money that refugees typically hide in their clothes, stripping them naked and threatening to burn the clothes, leaving them with a choice of keeping their dignity or losing their cash.
“I tried to be as close as possible to what could have happened. I filled the gaps, but I didn’t just want to make them up so I used the experience of other refugees to make it more truthful.”
The book revolves around Samia’s unbending determination to make it to the London Games, represented in almost every frame where she is drawn wearing a T-shirt bearing the word ‘run’.
“I think it was a pretty accurate representation of her personality,” said Krug.
“She wasn’t just an athlete. She wasn’t just a refugee. She was an extremely warm, caring person who also had a very big dream. I think that resonates.”
“I tried to be as close as possible to what could have happened.”
Kleist gives presentations in German schools talking to children about Samia and refugees generally. They are fascinated, he said. “First, they make a step from ‘This is a drawing so it must be fantasy’ to ‘No, this is a real person’. In the end, they ask really good questions. Sometimes you can erase prejudices.”
And yet drawing a lesson from a life that ended so abruptly is hard. To stay or go, when both options are life-threatening? Some of her relatives say she should not have left in the first place, said Krug, but that might just be with the benefit of hindsight. If she had succeeded, it would not have been questioned.
“I’ve spoken to so many refugees who made that journey and a lot of them say they wish they never set out… But you have people in Mogadishu saying ‘I can’t stay here, there’s no future.’ ”
Samia’s story ends with the announcement of her death by fellow Somali athlete Abdi Bile, who competed twice in the Olympics and was the 1,500-metre world champion in 1987.
Just after the 2012 Olympics, a tearful and angry Bile announced in a speech in Mogadishu that Samia had perished in the Mediterranean.
“We are responsible,” he said, urging his audience to remember Samia. “If we don’t remember, we can’t correct.”
Reinhard Kleist has written a number of critically acclaimed graphic books, including a biography of Johnny Cash and The Boxer, based on the true story of Holocaust survivor who became a boxer in the United States. He is the first graphic artist to win the prestigious B.Z. Kulturpreis, for his contribution to culture in Berlin. He is working on a biography of Nick Cave.